Research Shows Strong Link Between Athleticism And Leadership


Teamwork. Dedication. Character. Leadership. Determination. Who knew that when young girls participate in organized sports, they are learning and developing crucial traits for future success in the corporate world? As athletes, albeit intuitively, they may have known it all along.

Here in the US, the groundbreaking federal law in 1972, commonly known as Title IX, changed everything. It prohibited sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding and mandated gender equality in athletics, among other areas. It is one of the key reasons why women’s athletics participation in high school and college has skyrocketed, increasing by 90 percent (by some estimates) over the past four decades.

The benefits of girls playing sports are diverse and far-reaching. Many studies have highlighted results in lifelong improvements in women’s health, education and careers. Title IX’s requirement of gender equality in athletics not only ensures that young women are not treated as second-class citizens and relegated to the sidelines when it comes to athletics, but has profound, oftentimes life-changing, implications in their lives.

Professional skills development starts very early in kids' lives, unwittingly, takes place on rain-soaked soccer fields, sun-drenched beaches and the ubiquitously deafening school gyms throughout the academic year.

We can all nostalgically recollect that first character-defining moment, whether it was waking up at half past four on a Saturday morning, for a three-hour car ride, in order to compete in a regional sports competition, or the daily grueling regimen of running mile-after-mile with the hope of winning the cross-country league championship.

So many young girls have long toiled away, sacrificing sleep-overs and parties in order to reach peak fitness levels, and that is clearly evident by our numerous female corporate and heads-of-state leaders. For many of us, much like our predecessors, we have spurned the limitations of traditional professional roles for the opportunity to make the world a better place, and it all started with that first pitch or daunting hill, which we overcame beautifully.


  • PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in India and later softball in the US.
  • DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman played college basketball at Tuft’s University.
  • Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played several sports, including basketball, soccer and softball.
  • Mondolez International CEO Irene Rosenfeld was a four-sport athlete in high school and played basketball at Cornell University.
  • Former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a competitive figure skater and tennis player.
  • Venus Williams, legendary professional tennis player, founded two companies, V-Starr Interiors (an interior design firm) and EleVen, an athletic clothing line.
  • Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, played volleyball
  • The first female head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team.
  • The co-founder of Marvell Technology Group, Weili Dai, played semi-professional basketball in China.
  • London 2012 marked for the first time in history that each of the 204 participating nations had female athletes competing in the Olympics, including, for the first time, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei.
  • A survey of executive women found that 80% played sports growing up, and 69% said sports helped them develop leadership skills that contributed to their professional success.
  • By 2030, nearly a billion women will enter the economic mainstream. Called the “Third Billion”- the first and second are the populations of China and India- nearly 95% of these women are from emerging economies.
7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.