My actual, written, stated life goal growing up was to be the first female in Major League Baseball or in the National Basketball Association. I had no reason for this to not be my goal – I only ever played at home with the boys and my girls’ sports teams always rocked, so, in my opinion, any goal was in reach. My best friend growing up was a boy. I remember once we were in the car and I had my hair in a ponytail. We were in junior high, I believe, and that was probably the first time he truly realized I was a girl. Not one of the guys. I always had the confidence to run around with the boys and hold my own. Granted, I had to learn how to be a bit more physical when playing sports with them or when trying to make a point, but I competed with the boys.
Once I got to high school, I realized this dream of being the first woman to play a men’s professional sport was a bit far-fetched – not because of my abilities, but because I was born with the wrong parts and the world around me was starting to realize that difference. Without any real hopes of playing women’s sports for any amount of livable wage after college, I knew I had to get a “real” job. I gravitated towards math and science as that was my comfort area. I could never comprehend how girls could say they hated these subjects! With the boys, we were always digging for fossils, playing around on the computer and learning DOS, and deciding the best trajectory for launching a football down field. Math and science were my norm.
Fast-forward a few years, and I’m still an athlete and a mathlete. At the Rocky Mountain Oracle User Group’s Training Days in February, I will be a member of the Women in Technology panel, moderated by Kellyn Pot’vin-Gorman. This will be my third time as a panelist for her, and she always challenges me. Kellyn is very good about having the panelists introduce themselves via email and then tries to elicit conversation about personal experiences and thoughts on WIT before the actual panel session. I try to take these panels seriously because I never know when what I say will persuade or dissuade someone from a thought or decision. I’m not a bra-burning panelist. I’m not even one who will dare comment on work-life balance, child issues, or anything along those lines because I have no basis for a comment. I have made a life choice to not have children of my own – but believe me when I say I have respect for the women that have children and full time jobs, especially if the home duties are less than balanced. Rather, I choose to spend my energy talking about empowering girls from elementary school through college. That’s where I can make the most difference, so I focus my efforts there. If I were home more for my job, I would certainly be involved in some sort of grassroots effort to keep girls interested and confident in their math and science skillsets.
I had an epiphany a couple weeks ago on my long run. I was thinking about the WIT panel discussion and my sweet spot – how do we keep girls confident? Something that popped into my mind was my high school softball team and what each person is doing now in their career. Exactly three-fourths of them got some sort of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degree. In my mind I thought that surely this ratio was higher than normal. What about my golf team? Basketball team? Same ratio. Which made me start wondering…is there a correlation between sports teams and STEM careers? The next morning I started looking for studies and research done regarding just this topic, and there are lots of data to support the claim that participation in sports at a high school or college level does lead to higher correlation in STEM careers. I took a poll of the women in my own company to ask them, first, what their degree was in college and, second, if it was a STEM degree, did they play at least junior varsity or varsity sports in high school and/or college? The result was a whopping 80% played in high school or college. My initial hypothesis doesn’t seem like a fluke anymore.
One of my good friends, Debbie Gollnick, is an Oracle developer, has a degree in computer science, played basketball in college, coached professional women’s basketball, and is a marathon friend of mine. I asked her to think back to the girls she played high school basketball with and what degree they got in college. She recalls at least half of them went on to get STEM degrees. Of the girls that were in her engineering and math classes in college, most of them played sports. Additionally, Debbie noted that 70% of the girls she coached over 6 years earned STEM related degrees.
I decided to take my curiosity to the web and do a search. The first article I found was a press release from Ernst & Young from 10 October 2014 that cited of the executive women interviewed, 52% played sports at the collegiate level. When asked about what traits they saw as most important for leadership, the top three results were problem solving, communication skills, and adaptability. In regards to their own careers, these women felt that persistence, ambition/drive and confidence were the top three. Do these not completely fall in line with the goals of youth sports?
A study conducted in 2002 by Oppenheimer found that 82% of women that held executive level positions had played sports. What is also interesting is that of all the women interviewed, of those making at least $75,000, almost half of them had played sports. The 82% is in contrast to the 61% of the total women interviewed (including those not in executive positions or making $75,000+ per year) that had played sports. I found this study interesting as it dared to ask if the athletic nature of the business leaders was a result of nature or nurture. I believe Eli Primrose-Smith hit the nail on the head saying, “I craved winning at age 6.” I can agree with that taste of victory and continually striving for it. Of the skillsets gained from sports that have carried onto the real-world, the ones cited in this article highlight teamwork, leadership, discipline, time management, perseverance, risk-taking, dealing with failure, networking and breaking into the old boys’ club. Thinking about my own experience, I learned how the boys’ club worked while being an adopted member for a while.
After reading these first couple articles, I was dying for some empirically researched articles that would satisfy the academia nut in me. Specifically, I would love to read about a longitudinal study of girls from kindergarten through around age 30 to see the similarities of life choices. However, I could not find an article like that, but I did find a really nice one on gender equity in sports. One part of the article set out to highlight the importance of sports to girl’s success. This article was probably my favorite and I highly encourage you to read it in full. The big point of this study that stood out to me was that girls who played sports not only tended to fare better in science classes, but they also were more likely to have higher GPAs, do better on tests, and earned 14% higher wages.
Another article from the Women’s Sports Foundation regarding health, sports and the well-being of, specifically, American girls talks about many different aspects of girl’s health and how it affects their life as a whole. The section I was most interested in was the one titled “Mathematics and Science Achievement” because it absolutely debunks the myth that boys are innately better at math and science than girls are. As the gut hypothesis on my run suggested, the study agreed that “female high school athletes performed better in math and science courses than their female non-athletic counterparts”. A small longitudinal study (my favorite!) showed that sports had positive effects on math and science. Regarding “Athletic Interest and Participation”, fourth through sixth grade girls were more likely to stay in a sport if their parents encouraged them.
Parental encouragement to continue to play sports in grade school leads to a higher likelihood of a daughter succeeding in a STEM-related career field.
The debate can rage forever about how to keep women in technology, keep young women interested in STEM-related fields and encourage STEM participation at an early age. And, quite frankly, some of these efforts take time and need organized groups to keep the momentum going. However, the research shows that the greatest gains could be made in your own household. Want to keep your daughter encouraged in math and science? Keep her involved in sports. The evidence is there and this is a small commitment that could mean the world. Encourage her to keep throwing like a girl!
So let me go back to my original hypothesis that there is a high correlation between involvement sports in grade school to choosing a STEM career. In my opinion, hypothesis proved! I will come back to the thought that the easiest thing you may be able to do to encourage a STEM career for your daughter is to encourage them in the sports they play. And that should be pretty easy since you are already their number one fan, right? Right??!!
I have stated for years that when I get off the road, the first thing I want to do is coach some girls’ sports team. I don’t know what sport, and I don’t really care. After reading the aforementioned articles, the thought is real that my encouragement of one girl in any given sport could help decide the future of their career without even mentioning the words science, technology, engineering or math. There is no need if the confidence and life skills are present that come naturally from sports!
Note: Special thanks to many people for their assistance with this article. They include: Kellyn Pot’vin-Gorman, Debbie Gollnick, Jes Borland and the women of interRel Consulting.