As a kid, I remember my mom telling me a story about P.E. classes when she was in school. She played basketball in class but only ran half the length of the court. Girls didn’t play full court basketball due to the prevailing thought it was too strenuous for girls. Playing softball meant and extra person in the field, again to reduce the stress on girls.
I was shocked. I played sports my entire life and the thought never crossed my mind that competitive sports were out of my reach or that playing was too strenuous. It never crossed my mind because I grew up after Title 9 went into effect. That law 40 years ago, helped to even the playing field between men and women in college sports. It mandated that women be given the same advantages to play as men.
The law states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
This was a huge advancement in college athletics. It’s changed the landscape of professional sports but it’s also made an impact on women in business.
With more women exposed to sports and given opportunities to play there are more women who don’t think twice about jumping into a sports related conversation at work. There are more women who use sports phrases in boardrooms and more women who relate to their male counterparts in through sports headlines and at sporting events.
Take for example this comment from Michelle Mrciniak during a recent NPR story on the impact of Title 9. Michelle was a standout college basketball player in college and went on to play professionally in the WNBA. Since that time, she’s cofounded SHEEX, a company that makes bedsheets out of athletic fabrics. Notice her comment about making sports work to her advantage.
“There’s not a boardroom that I’ve been in, there’s not a man who I’ve been in front of in the business world that doesn’t know basketball. I’ll talk basketball as far as the day is long with anyone… and I think there’s a certain amount of respect that guys give you if you can talk sports. “
There are two things I want to point out in this conversation.
Michelle played basketball her entire life, it was a passion of hers, it was something she loved doing. Bringing the basketball conversation into the boardroom wasn’t a burden for her and it wasn’t something she did just to earn the respect of men. Her ability to fit in during those conversations helped her find common ground. Her comment about “not a man who I’ve been in front of in the business world that doesn’t know basketball.” Think about how much easier it must be for her knowing that she can find common ground with the people she meets. It’s a definite advantage in business to when it comes to building the rapport that leads to transactions.
Here are the two big takeaways for you.
- Many women enjoy talking about sports because it’s become a larger part of the culture as a whole. This is not about learning to talk sports to ‘be like one of the guys.’ There’s a desire to talk sports because it’s an actual interest. Often when I mention sports conversations people picture a conversation that includes all men. Why? Women can have just as much passion and interest and it’s time we recognize that and stop assuming that sports and sports conversations are just a way to pander to men at work.
- Sports conversations are a benefit in business. Like it or not, the business world is full of sports clichés and phrases. That’s not going to change, especially when you consider the impact of Title 9. Men and women alike can benefit from sports conversations. There is no substitute for rapport and trust in business. Sports conversations can help you get to that point. It’s a mistake not to use them to your advantage with both men and women.
If you’re looking for a way to engage on current sports topics, I publish a blog every Monday titled Workplace Conversation Starters. In it, I outline 4-5 hot sports topics, provide a quick summary, a link with more information and a few questions you can ask to help get a conversation going.
Don’t let the opportunities pass you by when it comes to engaging with men and women in your workplace.