THE BLOG

Sheryl Sandberg, Success, and Sport

15/03/2013 20:14 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 10:12 BST

Sheryl Sandberg's new book Lean In has been making waves for weeks, but the turbulent waters of opinion surrounding its publication obscure the positive actions we can be taking to address the issues it raises. I'm not as interested in joining the debate about the merits of Sandberg's ideas - and her right to make them in the first place - as I am in exploring how we can use the truth in her arguments to make some real progress toward equal opportunity.

In Lean In, Sandberg expands upon her famous TED Talk to further unpack the lack of women in leadership positions. She cites the stagnating numbers of women in positions of professional and political leadership to suggest that, despite record numbers of women getting more degrees than men, those numbers are not bearing out in boardrooms, corner offices, and halls of parliament. Women's share of senior management, for example, has hovered around 20% for 10 years.

The reasons for these statistics are complex, so solutions to the leadership gap are clearly not simple. The aspect that Sandberg is so concerned with - what the individual can do - does, though, suggest some clear answers.

These answers boil down to one thing: confidence.

If women want to find strength within themselves to project the confidence that men do, they can begin with the lessons other parts of life have already taught them about excelling.

One of the best sources of such lessons is something that we're all familiar with: sport. Sport teaches confidence, decisiveness, problem-solving, and strategic thinking skills.

As Christiane Amanpour notes in the book The Person Who Changed My Life, it was the challenges she encountered riding horses at just five years old that sustained her throughout her legendary reporting career.

Studies by the Women's Sports Foundation have shown a strong connection between participation in sport and success in later life. One study found that 80% of Fortune 500 female executives played sports growing up.

This statistic is a glaring indicator that laying the groundwork of equality of professional opportunity for women should start when they're girls. You can't ignore the lifetime of psychological development and social influence that give a woman her unique mentality on self-promotion in the workplace. Sandberg recognises this, but more can be done at an earlier age to build self-esteem instead of relying on women to have a revolution in self-confidence 30 years later. It's not that easy.

One of my goals with Zaggora, my sportswear company, is to team up with a school to launch a sport and leadership programme for girls. Our ethos is about taking steps to get active so that you can lead a happier and healthier life, a similar lesson to the ones we see in Lean In. With the natural leadership skills sport can build, girls will be equipped with even more confidence and self-motivation to pursue their dreams later in life - traits Sandberg is seeking in the adult selves that wait just outside the boardroom.