Women, Leadership, and Sports – Learning from Experience

August 8, 2013 at 10:13 PM
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Women, Leadership, and Sports – Learning from Experience

Cynthia Bainton, Kush Sidhu, James Stellar

The three of us recently came together from different perspectives. CB is a repeat blogger and works at Northeastern University where JS was Dean. KS was JS’ graduate student at Northeastern before pursuing a different career in Washington DC where on the side of his career he set up an ice hockey academy for girls that led to discussions and this blog post about competitiveness, leadership, and gender differences. We also all just read the new book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

KS comments from his perspective that in athletics, the story goes: if you throw a puck (or ball) out into a group of girls, they will start to pass it around and play together (cooperative), whereas if you do the same thing with a group of boys, they will try to keep it away from each other (competitive).  Sandberg illustrates this difference between genders with her ‘keep your hand up’ anecdote.  There are some methods that teachers/coaches use to instill competitiveness in girls, but it’s a thin area, and no one so far thinks they’ve found ‘the answer’.

KS, your observations remind me of my first skating race during my hometown’s annual Winter Carnival.  I was 4 years old and there were probably about 5 or 6 of us racing. All I remember is that I was “racing” with my friend Ann. If she got ahead of me, she would wait for me to catch up and, if I got ahead of her, I would wait for her to catch up.  We ended up holding hands as we crossed the finish line together much to the amusement of the crowd watching.  The officials awarded us both a fourth place ribbon. Ann was my first friend and best friend.  It was more important for us to skate together than to race against each other.

It is important that all people “lean in’” although in her book Sandberg is specifically referring to women. She equates leaning in with being ambitious. Are women really not ambitious? And if that is so, why? Of course there are some women who are ambitious, but according to Sandberg, the number of women who lack ambition with regard to their careers has plateaued and is declining. In many of the situations Sandberg describes, it sounds as if women think they have to choose between a career and being liked or having a family and so they settle for a less demanding career because they don’t think having both is an option. It sounds to me like they are giving up too easily and reminds me of KS’s challenge of how to instill competitiveness in girls. In Lean In, Sandberg makes the case for why women should pursue careers, or volunteer work, or hobbies that they find rewarding regardless of hurdles that may be in their way. And, she provides tools and encouragement for getting there.

In my 25 years of coaching, I’ve had the opportunity to work with men’s and women’s ice hockey teams at the high school, collegiate, and international levels, but I now primarily work with high school girls teams. In this time, I’ve come to understand that what I do is much more than teach X’s and O’s, and what my players do is much more than develop themselves physically. To me, sports are an entry-point to teaching kids about: developing habits, defining a culture, being a good teammate, and of course, leadership. I would say that there are more similarities between male and female athletes than differences, but the differences that do exist are quite stark. For example, as stated, male players seem to compete instinctively, whereas we have to really work to get the girls to ‘battle’. When I learned that Jim and Cynthia were writing about leadership development for women, I wanted to get their thoughts on my ‘competitiveness’ observation, but more so, I want to know how I as a coach could more effectively instill competitiveness in my young female athletes. Now that we’ve read Lean In, it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who’s observed this disparity in instinctual competitiveness between genders. (I want to stress that I have had the privilege to work with many extremely competitive female athletes, but stand by my observation that by and large, developing competitiveness in female athletes requires attention.) Why is it not enough that we get girls to play sports for the sake of fitness and camaraderie…why do we have to worry about them competing? I mean, more girls are participating in sports than any time in history – so we should be happy about that, right? Well, sure, we’re happy that more girls are playing sports, but let’s make sure we are maximizing the opportunity in front of us…and although competing may not come as naturally to girls as it does to the guys, we owe it to girls to make sure they are as good at competing as they are at the other (physical) skills they are developing.

And if we take the 30,000 ft. view of this topic, I would argue that there is a more important reason to help girls become competitors (warning: big claim coming up!): competitors achieve more, earn more, and have greater influence. Developing competitiveness in girls and young women will equip more of them to gain positions of authority where they will have greater influence on younger generations of future female leaders. Looking solely at the low (and getting lower) number of female collegiate coaches (of female teams), it’s clear we are falling short in getting women into such positions. In non-athletic professions, the number of women in the C-Suite is likewise miniscule compared to men. However, the fact that most C-Suite women were at one time young athletes (as illustrated in a recent popular article) poses an interesting point of discussion. Have we simply missed an opportunity through sports to develop more leaders by not paying attention to developing competitiveness?

A question I have always had, which I would like to pose to both of you, is whether it is better to teach a woman to be more aggressive than to try to restrain that trait in someone (either a woman or a man). My idea is that we need flat-out aggressive energy against problems in this world, but we also need a team approach to solving those problems. Too much aggression turned on each other blows apart the team. I have noticed that many of my neuroscience students over the years have been women and many of them have done very well. What do you folks think?

I think we need to teach girls to compete – not sure aggression is always called for, but that is certainly helpful in competition at times. Getting girls into the game is great – but we need to take it to another level. I think we can reach girls through sports and with that platform develop competitive traits, but I’m sure there are other ways to teach this. The big question is – what’s the best way to teach competitiveness? Is it getting girls to love ‘winning’ and hate ‘losing’? Do we do that with standard reinforcement techniques? Or is it something bigger than that?

I agree we need to teach girls to compete, but I don’t think we should reinforce the “winning is good, losing is bad” belief because I believe that learning to lose gracefully is a valuable skill that will serve them well later in their lives. I wonder if there may be a problem with the vocabulary. Do we need to change the connotations of the word? That is, is it possible that girls view the word “competitiveness” as having negative connotations or as being “masculine”? We need to teach them that competitiveness is a positive skill, neither exclusively masculine nor feminine, that if mastered will help them reach their future goals. The reason I bring this up is because the word “aggression” for me definitely has negative connotations. I am wondering if girls subconsciously view competitiveness with the same negative connotations. KS, I wonder if you could survey your girl players on various words to find out how they view them.

Clearly this conversation can go on and word choice is important. To the reader please comment to continue the conversation here.

To wrap up and bring our discussion back to the college-level experiential education and brain, it is very likely that the unconscious motivation, decision-making, and traits discussed in both the Eagleman and Kahneman books (frequently cited in this blog) come from brain circuits that learn and change. What happens on the ice or other places in sports for women may be more than just memories. It may change the person and perhaps for the better at least in terms of succeeding in the competitive world. Colleges need to graduate leaders as well as work-ready students of both genders. One open question is how experiential education programs in college, such as team sports, can be designed to produce leadership.

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