The Athlete's Way

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Using Athletics to Close the Gender Gap in Politics

Young women who play sports are more likely to seek leadership roles.

Rosie the Riveter

Gender inequality is alive and kicking in America. A woman earns 78 cents to a man’s dollar. Only 16% of Fortune 500 board seats are held by women. We have only 6 female Governors and 20 female U.S. Senators. Yet, a new study found there is "a substantial and persistent gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t."

A study released on March 26, 2013 and conducted by American University professor Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox (Loyola Marymount University) reveals that young women are less likely than young men ever to have considered running for office, to express interest in a candidacy at some point in the future, or to consider elective office a desirable profession. The title of the report is Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans' Political Ambition

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What can we do to close this gender gap? The researchers found that one reason for the disparity of political ambition is that young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about winning. They conclude that, “spurring young women to immerse themselves in competitive environments, such as organized sports, can go a long way in reinforcing the competitive spirit associated with interest in a future candidacy.”

Lawless and Fox identify a total of five factors that contribute to the gender gap in political ambition among college students:

  1. Young men are more likely than young women to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career path.
  2. From their school experiences to their peer associations to their media habits, young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than do young men.
  3. Young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about winning.
  4. Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office—from anyone.
  5. Young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office, even in the not-so-near future.

Get off the sidelines.

The authors conclude that it’s important that parents, family members, teachers, and coaches urge young women to think about a political career. Unfortunately, it appears that the under-representation of women in elective office is likely to extend well into the future. Ultimately, this report shows how far from gender equality we are and that we need to take a multi-pronged approach based on changes in attitudes, behaviors, public policy...

In a recent interview with Katie Couric, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sums up why we need more women in politics and the importance of “Getting Off the Sidelines.”

Lean In!

Coincidentally, on the same day that the “Girls Just Wanna Not Run” report was released, actress-activist Ashley Judd announced that she will not run for a U.S. Senate seat against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Ashley Judd announced her decision via Twitter, "After serious and thorough contemplation, I realize that my responsibilities and energy at this time need to be focused on my family," Judd said. "Regretfully, I am currently unable to consider a campaign for the Senate."

In the past few weeks, the juggling act that women face in terms of balancing family responsibilities and having a successful career has been a hot button topic. I just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” and recommend it highly. I love this book and was inspired by its message. I have a hunch that most people who have attacked Sandberg and criticized Lean In either didn’t have an advance copy before they reviewed the book, or haven’t read it. Before you say anything negative about this book please take the time to read it.

Arianna Huffington summed up how important Sandberg's book is in a Forbes review saying: “This is a great moment for all of us—women and men—to acknowledge that the current male-dominated model of success isn’t working for women, and it’s not working for men, either . . . The world needs women to redefine success beyond money and power. We need a third metric, based on our well-being, our health, our ability to unplug and recharge and renew ourselves, and to find joy in both our job and the rest of our life.”

Dare to compete.

Billie Jean King said famously, “Be bold. And don’t be afraid to hit the ball.” Throughout the documentary  MAKERS: Women Who Make America which debuted on PBS last month, there is a constant thread of stories that show the importance of women being bold that revolve around sports. From groundbreaking athletes like Billie Jean King, to Kathrin Switzer (who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967) to women in business and politics like Meg Whitman....The link between sports and competition is a recurrent theme in the documentary.

In the MAKERS interview, Meg Whitman, who is the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and ran for governor of California in 2010, recounts the role that sports played in her life. Whitman says,

“Most of my friends who have been in medicine or in law or the environment or politics...almost all of them played team sports and I think that has made a huge, huge difference to my generation of women. Title IX required colleges in particular to give equal time and equal money to girls' sports and boys' sports. I played every sport that could be played. I was a swimmer, I was a basketball player, I played soccer, field hockey... And I learned some things that have stood me in really good stead in my career. How do you relate to your teammates? How do you play your passion? And, frankly, the joy of winning as a team.”

The principles of the athletic mindset and competitive spirit played a crucial role in Hillary Rodham Clinton's decision to get involved in politics. Clinton recalls the moment she decided to run for office:

"As first lady, I went to New York City for a totally unrelated event. It was an event about encouraging young women to participate in sports, and there was a big banner behind the podium where I was going to speak. And the banner said: ‘DARE TO COMPETE.’ So this young woman introduces me. She whispers in my ear: ‘Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton. Dare to compete.’ That did it. I thought, Here I’ve been someone telling young women all my life: ‘Compete for what you believe in, whether it’s your community or your country,’ and my words were coming back to haunt me."

Conclusion: Making the benefits of title IX universally accessible.

When you look at the the statistics of who has benefited from title IX there is a disparity based on race and socioeconomic status. What can we do to change this? We need schools, businesses and governments working together to get young women from all walks of life participating in sports. 

This issue is critical to the infrastructural advancements of our country. We need more women running for political office so they can win elected seats at all levels of government. Their influence will help create public policy and legislation that will continue to level the playing field between men and women and close the gender gap once and for all.

 

 

 

 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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