The imagination gap: teams, dreams, and the future of women in leadership

Ask any successful person and they’ll tell you about a role model. Somebody they aspired to be like. Somebody who showed them the way.

For many girls and young women, these role models are thin on the ground. This is especially true if they’re looking to make their way in traditionally male-dominated worlds like sport or technology.

That’s a great shame for these industries, because they’re losing out on the potential innovation, creativity, and brilliance of these young dreamers. This lack of diverse thinking increases the risk that companies and entire industries will lose relevance. It’s time we did something other than talk about the problem.

Finding a solution isn’t going to be easy, partly because ‘women’ is such a diverse group. Some will identify as women of colour, as mothers, as immigrants and as many other things all at once. But this added complexity isn’t a valid excuse for not trying. Quitting is easy but hurts us all.

This isn’t just about convincing more young women that they have what it takes to be great leaders. We must also convince men to be led by them. We can only do that by exposing them to women who are excellent leaders.

A long and short game

This is going to take time. But no monumental change ever started without millions taking a bold step forward. For us, that means we must be brave enough to have an immediate impact.

Being part of a team is a great way of developing the skills needed for leadership. This is why Atlassian commissioned research in partnership with the Australian Football League. We wanted to explore the relationship between playing team sports and professional success.

It’s safe to say there’s a clear correlation. Sports aren’t for everybody: we get that. The good news is that team sports aren’t the only way to develop these valuable skills. Being part of a debating team, theatre group or the Scouts also resets perceptions at a young age. It creates a sense of belonging and a place to grow safely.

What’s the score?*

Almost seven in 10 Australians played team sport between the ages of five and 18. Of those who did, 95% say it helped them develop important career skills. These included a strong work ethic (80%) and competitive edge (78%).

Many women miss out on the development of these skills because of lower participation in team sports and higher dropout rates. Half quit playing in high school, with 16% not even staying involved through primary school.

The cultural reasons behind why girls often quit team sport need addressing. Many women report a lack of confidence, opportunity and support as barriers to entry. Worse still, 16% say they didn’t play because of teasing and bullying.These are early learnings about their place in the world that we must help girls and young women break.

Missing out carries a high price. For 43% of women, the biggest loss was the opportunity to develop self-confidence and resilience. Women often face career barriers that don’t exist for men. The skills developed during team activities ensure they’re equipped to handle these hurdles.

The research shows those who play team sport are significantly more likely to reach managerial and other roles of responsibility. Continuing to play into adulthood increases this likelihood. However, interviews with Australian parents suggest girls are still less likely to play team sports than boys, even though they can see the benefits of getting them involved.

More than half of parents with girls say lack of interest is the main reason they don’t play a team sport. There’s great value in sparking that interest and giving more girls a reason to dream.

Meet the team

Atlassian partnered with the AFL because we’re both struggling with the same challenge. We both want to blaze a trail for our respective industries to follow and do our part to remove the barriers women still face on the way to achieving their dreams. We want to build balanced teams, helping girls and young women believe they can be leaders in sport, technology or any other field.

 

Lily Serna is a data analyst at Atlassian. By the time she was leaving high school, she’d decided she wanted to work in mathematics. It wasn’t easy because she lacked a role model. “I didn’t really have anyone in my immediate space who had done that,” Lily says. “It would have been a lot easier if someone I knew was one step ahead of me.”

AFLW Brisbane Lions defender Kate Lutkins has that role model. She remembers when she started playing indoor football as a 10-year-old: “There was a girl who was a few years older than me and I absolutely looked up to her. I wanted to play football like her. Part of who I am today is because of her.”

It leaves a memorable impression when girls are in a position to lead others. Atlassian program manager, Rachel Scott, has fond memories of her time as a rowing captain and it still merits a mention on her CV.  “I’m really proud of the opportunity I had to lead other girls,” Scott says. “”You have to crack on no matter how physically, mentally and emotionally fatigued you are.”

AFLW Brisbane Lions fullback Leah Kaslar sees how the AFLW is making a difference. She recalls a conversation with a dad about how the women’s league had inspired his daughter: “This girl didn’t think she could play AFL but now she’s down at Auskick with her brother. She’s kicking a footy and thinks she’s invincible.”

If one parent reads this and encourages their child to take part in team activities, we’ll be marking a win on our scorecard.

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