Should Women Have To Talk Sports To Get Ahead In Business?

by / August 25, 2014

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of having my blood boiled over a recent LinkedIn article – A Small But Important Piece of Advice For Aspiring Young Women – Be Able To Talk Sports.

When I saw the title, I couldn’t wait to read the advice, and sadly, I wasn’t surprised at all. The advice came from Sanyin Siang, Executive Director of the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics(named after Coach Mike Krzyzewski) at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.  The post mentions that, in addition to partnering with Coach K in propagating his leadership formula from the court into the world of business, Sanyin is renowned in her own right, with influential writings on leadership, ethics, and technology in Fortune, Forbes and the Huffington Post, among others.There are 6 things that make my blood boil about this advice:

The article shares this:

“In her leadership advisory work, Sanyin said that she has detected an unmistakable pattern among female CEOs. “They all have great sports awareness.” This may sound frivolous at best or male chauvinist at worst. But it’s remarkable how often sports come into play in “drive-by” conversations outside of meetings and formal professional situations.

Not unlike talking about the weather, sports are a great equalizer and conversation starter. But better than the weather, they are a catalyst in relationship building, especially in a business world where you have to interact with men. Finding common interests around sports and who you root for touches people emotionally. Therefore, as an aspiring young woman in business, you don’t want to be ignorant or uninterested in sports.”

1. Women don’t need to be like men to get ahead. Women don’t have to emulate traits of men or take on their habits, behaviors or interests to advance.  Thank goodness, those days are gone.  For how women can get ahead, read my latest Forbes post on gender parity and what we need to do in corporate America to pave the way for more women to lead.

2. If you like sports, or are interested in them, then it’s perfectly grand to talk about sports.  Have at it.  On the other hand, if you don’t care about sports at all, never pretend. Pretending always backfires in your life and in your work.  You become a faker and a liar, and fakers become weak and begin to lack confidence and self-esteem because they’re not being real (and trust me, that shows).

3. Again, women are being given advice that it’s all about how to “fit in” or become “memorable to men” in order to get ahead. I say, forget about “fitting in.” It’s time that you be more of who you are, not less. (Here’s some inspiration for that.)

4. Here’s a question for you – Would you ever tell a man that he should start taking an interest in fashion or cooking, and become comfortable talking about it with his female colleagues, if he wants to advance in female-dominated fields? It’s totally offensive on numerous levels.

5. When will our society understand – once and for all — that women are not “men in skirts” and that trying to be more like a man to get ahead puts women back 50 years?

6. Again, many women love sports and are athletes and enthusiasts, and for those that are, share your interests and talk about them.  But if you aren’t, don’t allow yourself to feel “less than.”

Personally speaking, I am a sports enthusiast, and was a top-level tennis player in high school, earning the chance to compete in the New York state championships for women’s tennis.  I love to watch soccer and hockey too, and have attended scores of games.  I used to beat all my male friends in tennis, and enjoyed that immensely. (My mom used to say, “Kathy, don’t beat all the boys!  You should let them win.”)

I get the appeal of sports, and have lived an early life of an athlete.  I also spent 18 years in corporate America, and rose to the level of Vice President.  I know what it takes to succeed in business at high levels, even in male-dominated cultures.  I truly understand what Sanyin is perhaps trying to get at – that if you have common interests with folks you’re interacting with (and those who are at higher levels than you), you’re more able to quickly build trust, rapport and connection.

The problem I have with this advice is that it tells women who aren’t interested in sports to change their behavior – pretend to like sports, or get interested, and learn to be comfortable talking about sports. To lie about what you care about, and to try to speak in an informed, engaging way about something you have no interest in, is the wrong advice. End of story.

The advice I’d offer is this:
Love what you love, care about what you care about, and be yourself. Be confident, secure and strong in who you are authentically and what you’re passionate about, and find an organization and work culture (or start one) that wants you for exactly who you are.

What do you think – is it good advice to tell women they should become comfortable talking sports in order to advance in business?

by Kathy Caprino via Forbes

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