What do a disproportionate number of CEOs have in common? They played sports when they were younger.
But according to a series of Ernst & Young studies, it is even more common for female executives to have played a sport.
Ernst & Young surveyed 821 high-level executives and found that a whopping 90% of women sampled played sports. Among women currently holding a C-suite position, this proportion rose to 96%.
In high school, Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was the captain of the swim team and also played varsity lacrosse, tennis and basketball. At Princeton University she played NCAA squash and lacrosse. In her book "The Power of Many," Whitman writes: "I liked team sports the best. When I'm pulling a business team together, I still use those basketball aphorisms I learned as a young person: 'Let's pass the ball around a little before game time.' 'Do we need man-to-man or zone defense?'"
Whitman is not the only female CEO that has found athletics fundamental to their success.
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in college.
Sunoco CEO Lynn Elsenhans played on Rice University's first women's basketball team.
Mondelez International CEO Irene Rosenfeld played four varsity sports in high school and NCAA basketball at Cornell University
There are a few reasons why playing sports may boost your odds of business success.
Athletics builds character
Sports keep you physically and mentally healthy, teach you important relationship skills and forge determination. These benefits often spill over into the business world.
Sporting organizations help with networking
Northwestern sociologist Lauren Rivera notes that hiring rates increase the most among candidates who played "sports that have a strong presence at Ivy League schools as well as pay-to-play club sports, such as lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, squash and crew."
Sports often reflect privilege
It may not be that playing sports causes someone to become more of a leader; instead, the truth may be that people who are already competitive and have leadership potential are drawn to sports as kids. They and their families are also often more likely to be affluent, since participation on so many teams requires significant cash outlays.
Sports consume time, energy and resources that many families cannot spare. People who are well-off are more likely to play sports as well as more likely to become CEOs. If you can afford fencing lessons, your child's odds of becoming a CEO are already quite good.
But why are women in the C-suite more likely to have played sports than their male counterparts?
It might be that sports encourage women to break gender norms, something that is often required for them to reach executive positions in the business world. Sports teach young women and girls skills beyond teamwork and dedication. Learning to be aggressive, competitive and tough may make them the kind of employees eager to take on more responsibility and seek promotions.
It could also be that the same families that encourage girls to be athletes encourage women to be competitive and successful at work and at everything they do.
Whatever the reason, it is becoming more and more apparent that starting on the court or field may be the best path to the boardroom, especially for women.