Column: Female Athletes More Successful at Work Than Non-AthletesFebruary 25, 2016

Column: Female Athletes More Successful at Work Than Non-AthletesA 2014 survey of college graduates found that female athletes were more successful post-graduation than their contemporaries who were non-athletes.

The survey of 30,000 college graduates was commissioned by Purdue University President Mitch Daniels and conducted by the Gallup-Purdue Index. The primary goal of the survey was to determine the value of a college education. One key finding of the survey was that being involved with a mentor, a community or a long-term project while in school was important to future success. After the survey was published, the NCAA hired Gallup to dig deeper into the numbers as they related to student-athletes. The results of their work were released last week.

Gallup found that 48% of females who had been involved in athletics reported feeling engaged at work. That figure compares to 42% of female non-athletes. Engagement at work is generally considered to be a precursor to being more productive, loyal and successful. The feeling of engagement for former female athletes was 10% higher than it was for former male athletes. The survey did not discern reasons for the difference but male student-athletes, particularly those that played football or basketball, report less physical well-being post college than women athletes do. Physical challenges, particularly brain trauma and cognitive difficulties, can impact one’s feelings of engagement.

Experts who reviewed the Gallup findings were not surprised at the results. “Female college athletes learn a set of skills that helps them succeed in a highly competitive workplace environment,” Nicole M. LaVoi, the co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, told the Wall Street Journal. “And because they’re succeeding, they’re more engaged.”

The Gallup-Purdue Index isn’t the only recent research that has found a connection between playing sports and career success among females. A survey commissioned jointly by EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW and conducted by Longitude Research found that 74% of female executives across five continents believe that playing sports can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential. Among the 400 female executives surveyed, 94% participated in sports at some point during their lives and 61% of that number said it contributed to their current career success.

The link between playing sports and career success, according to the report, is that playing sports can help women develop motivational skills, team building skills, and the ability to see projects through to completion. Furthermore, it equips women with the competitive spirit that's essential for success not only on the playing field but in the workplace as well.

"Th[e] study validates long-held theories that women who are athletes are well-suited for the business world and have tangible advantages," said Laura Gentile, the founder of espnW, in a press release. "From work ethic to adaptability to superior problem-solving ability, these women enter the workforce ready to win and demonstrate that ability as they rise throughout their career." Beth Brooke-Marciniak, EY's Global Vice Chair of Public Policy and a former basketball player at Purdue, was equally effusive over the research results. "These findings show that participation in sport not only influences leadership skills, style, and career development, but it is also a powerful motivator for female executives," she said in a press release. “They learn resilience, they learn how to stay on task and get to the finish line.”

In today’s interdisciplinary world, many companies believe that teams are the best way to solve complex business problems. And it makes sense that anyone who has participated in team sports may be better prepared to be successful in a team environment in the real world than someone who didn’t. However, neither study drew a distinction between participation in team vs. individual sports and the impact of each on future success.

These studies, and others like them, may not definitively determine that playing college sports, or sports at any age, is directly linked to a successful and fulfilling career for women. Perhaps playing sports is merely coincidental to success later in life. On the other hand, the link between the two appears strong enough that we should ignore it at our peril. For years, parents, coaches and employers have touted the connection between playing sports and future success for men. Why should we expect the relationship to be different for women?