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Women, leadership, and sports: Looking back on London 2012 Back To Main


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Title IX, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, opened the doors for women's education and employment. Could the London Olympics deliver a similar effect on girls worldwide?

By Sanyin Siang

FORTUNE -- At Duke University's Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center, we are deeply engaged in cultivating the next generation of global leaders; we also value sports as a universal laboratory for leadership and culture development. (The center is named for Duke's legendary basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski.)

Some of my personal passions? Women's leadership, the transformation of the sports industry by globalization and disruptive technologies, and the power of sports to affect massive societal change. So it was with deep excitement that I watched the 2012 Summer Games with my two young daughters in our home in Durham, N.C. in July and August.

Like the million others worldwide, we watched the opening ceremonies, transfixed by the pageantry that touched upon the themes of technology and social media. We were moved by the images of Wodjan Shaherkani, the first female to represent her country, and other pioneering women from nations such as Libya, Brunei, Iraq, Yemen, and Qatar.

Throughout the 16 days, we witnessed women competing in every sport, representing 44% of the athletes. For the first time, every participating country sent a female delegate. The U.S. women brought home 67% of the U.S. medal count and their 29 gold medals tied for third most of any country.

While every Olympics gives us powerful and memorable stories and images that last beyond far beyond the Games, there was something about this Olympics that felt especially compelling and groundbreaking.

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But ultimately, what is the legacy of London 2012? The games gave us images and stories that will undoubtedly spur greater participation in sports by women, which will in turn, help advance women beyond sports.

The correlation between participation in sports and success among women surfaces often, especially among high-profile leaders. Well documented are IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde competing in synchronized swimming; PepsiCo (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi playing cricket; Kraft Foods (KFT) CEO Irene Rosenfeld engaging in four varsity sports in high school and basketball in college; and HP (HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman playing lacrosse and squash.

This is not surprising considering the mental discipline and social skills honed through playing sports. At the Coach K Center, we hear often from leaders such as Fidelity President Kathy Murphy, Walmart (WMT) EVP of People Division Susan Chambers, and Morgan Stanley (MS) Managing Director Carla Harris about how sports had fostered the resilience, agility, and team-orientation that advanced their leadership. Also, engaging in and appreciating sports gives women an understanding of business parlance that is often steeped in sports analogies and provides another avenue for social inclusion in the workplace.

In the U.S., although the gender gap remains significant, the number of women on boards and in executive positions far exceeds what it was decades ago. A 2002 Oppenheimer Funds study found that 82% of women business executives played organized sports after elementary school, 20% more than the general population.

The key contributor was Title IX, a landmark legislation that celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. A 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, Chief Economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, found that Title IX accounted for a 20% increase in women's education and for about a 40% rise in employment for women ages 25 to 34.

Could the London Olympics have a similar multiplier effect on girls worldwide? Perhaps, thanks to the power of social media. From the onset, social media played a critical role in driving interests in London 2012 and was even a key "character" in the concluding storyline of the Opening Ceremonies.

Dubbed by the organizers as the "First Social Media Olympics," mobile devices and social networking platforms granted around-the-clock access to results and images as well as magnified and sustained interest in the athletes.

So, for the first time, billions of people from all parts of the globe, including girls from developing countries and from regions where females have lower social status, had easy access to results, images, and stories about the games. They saw women competing in every sport. And they saw women win.

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Recently, Cindy-Ann Hersom, owner of Ignition, a cause marketing firm that develops programs on sporting platforms such as the Olympics and FIFA, shared with me the observation that girls in emerging economies see sports more and more as a pathway out of their current circumstances and an opening for future alternatives.

Ideally, the games will heighten the trend of increased athletics engagement by girls, already set in motion by international programs of various scope.

The United Nations, for example, highlights sports as a key contributor to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which include promoting gender equality and empowering women.

Social entrepreneurship group Ashoka and Nike (NKE) have had a partnership since 2006 to develop programs that unleash the power of sports as a tool for social innovation and gender empowerment.

The Climb High Foundation, started by Alison Levine, team captain of the 1st American Women's Everest Expedition, teaches women in developing nations the climbing and trekkings skills and the associated business opportunities that were once only available to men.

On its own, the "Women's Olympics" would have had great impact, as would have the first social-media games. But the combination of these two threads is sure to have a lasting impact. They will shape our social and economic landscape globally over the next few decades the way that Title IX has done and continues to do so for the U.S.

This fall, I look around and see our students making their way to Duke's campus from all around the world, and feel their excitement about academics and sports as they apply their talents towards making a difference for the future. And then, as I see my two daughters trying out gymnastics moves and practicing their "high jumps," I smile and think about those 16 days this past summer.

Sanyin Siang is the executive director of the Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.