Corporate America has a lot of work to do if it wants to achieve any form of gender equity.

According to a 2014 fact sheet from the Center for American Progress, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 60 percent of master’s degrees. Yet, somehow, they make up only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. They hold only 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats.

Here we face a dilemma. We want the girls and young women to grow up and earn these upper-level business positions, therefore increasing gender equality in the business world. But we also know, based on these statistics alone, corporate America isn’t always the most welcoming place for a woman. How can we ensure the women who enter the business world feel empowered to believe they are capable of earning a highly-paid leadership position?

According to Quinnipiac University’s Women’s Rugby Head Coach Becky Carlson, the first D1 women’s NCAA coach for a full-contact sport, the first step to achieving gender equity in the workplace is working toward gender equity in sports, she said in a phone interview with The Daily.

More than 3.2 million girls in the United States played high school sports in 2010, and about 200,000 young women played college sports in 2012. This is often their first experience working as part of a team to achieve a greater goal, and one of their first experiences taking on a major leadership role, such as team captain. The skills student athletes obtain through their sport translate directly to the business world. Unfortunately, for female athletes, playing a sport is often also their first experience facing blatant sexual discrimination.

Carlson often notices major gender inequity in college athletics, even when it means schools are noncompliant with Title IX, the law that requires federally-funded institutions (such as public schools) do not discriminate based on sex. At athletic events and seminars, she often explains her position to athletic directors and administrators by saying, “Women’s Varsity Rugby, the only full contact sport of women in the NCAA.”

“I get this response from people, and it ranges from insulting, to, ‘Oh, sweetie, our gender equity is fine, we don’t need you’ or, ‘You don’t look like a rugby player,’” she explained in a phone interview. “I often got the, ‘We’re in compliance (with Title IX), we’re fine,’ and I would always take notes on these universities that would say this, and they were not fine or in compliance.”

Even though Title IX was implemented almost half a century ago, the glaring gender inequity in today’s sports world is no secret. According to Athletic Business, girls’ sports lack not only recognition, but uniforms and equipment. Take a trip to any high school athletic facilities and this will be made abundantly clear. Or look at the ESPN or Sports Illustrated website to see that the sports world values the accomplishments of its male athletes much more highly than those of female athletes. Would it be much of a surprise if after female athletes graduate and enter the workplace, they subconsciously internalize the idea that their accomplishments are not as valuable as those of their male counterparts?

“If we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing in athletics — and it doesn’t have anything to do with dribbling, kicking, running, passing — it has everything to do with preparing them for what lies ahead,” Carlson said. “And what lies ahead is a system that is not going to ask you if you’d like a raise, it is a system that is not going to ask you to speak louder, it’s just going to pass you over.”

Carlson believes her primary role as a coach is to empower her athletes to succeed beyond the playing field.

“The first pitch that I make when I’m with recruits isn’t, ‘Hey, this is the scholarship opportunity and this is how great it is to play on the field and this is the amenities we have,’” she said. “No, the first pitch is, ‘I want you to leave here with the understanding that you can speak in the boardroom.’”

Her goal is for her athletes to graduate feeling comfortable asking questions, speaking up and negotiating their salaries. She doesn’t want them to graduate with the belief that no matter how hard they worked, they would still be second class compared to their male counterparts. Achieving this goal begins on the rugby field.

“I coach a full contact sport and we’ve been three-time national champions,” she said. “And I still see that when an athlete tackles and goes down for a second and needs a moment to shake it off and get up, our male trainers are up, off the bench, running out there. I’m like, give them a second. Give them a second … That never happens when a male athlete needs a second. They’re not running out there. We rush; we see (women) as weaker. That’s something in our athletes that I would like to see change. I would like for us to be able to say, ‘I would push this athlete the same way I would push a male athlete.’”

In other instances, she has seen women coaches criticized for being too “harsh” on their athletes, when male coaches are respected for the very same coaching tactics.

“It’s always, ‘She’s tough on them and he’s a great leader,’” she lamented. “They show Coach K and they’ll show Geno and in every photo those guys are coaching and they look serious and they look badass, right? It’s revered: It’s strength, it’s impressive, it is a champion’s face. And then you take the pictures that DNT has been using of Shannon (Miller) and she’s greedy, stubborn, unwilling to work.”

Carlson noted that this mindset translates directly to the business world. “That male CEO that you work under goes in and tells everyone how it is and everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s a boss, he’s badass,’” she said. “And you go into the boardroom and the woman tells you what to do and she’s considered bitchy, or considered moody.”

Several times, Carlson has seen her athletes reap the benefits of her female empowering coaching tactics. One of her athletes had been interning for a company for two years and wanted to be hired there after graduation, but believed she deserved more than the entry level salary that employees who had never worked there would earn.

“She went in,” Carlson recalled. “She directly said, ‘This is the value I bring to the company and if you want to hire me, this is my requirement.’ They said no initially, but she kept her head up after that, and she was still interning with them. Two weeks later, they turned around and were like, ‘You know, we really don’t want to lose you, we’ll take that salary bump and we want to hire you.’”

Why was this athlete so confident? Carlson explained: “A recognition and appreciation and a reverence for strength in athletics moves over to this life after college.”

The answer is simple. If we treat women as second-class citizens when they’re on the rugby field, we can’t expect them to understand that they’re equal as soon as they enter the boardroom.

Hannah Harshe can be reached at hharshe@umich.edu.

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