Facebook Facebook icon Twitter Twitter icon LinkedIn LinkedIn icon Email
Race team racial equity

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Four lessons from women’s football for advancing gender equality

Published 19 July 2023 in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion • 7 min read

As the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off, we examine how the sports world can teach us to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in business.

The excitement is palpable for this year’s FIFA World Cup because this month-long football event is about far more than what happens on the pitch. The historic 32-team tournament, co-hosted by Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, will offer thrilling examples of athleticism, resilience, and grit despite controversies surrounding sponsorship, ambassadors, and the lack of a broadcast agreement in several major markets until the last minute.  

Equally important for this World Cup, and the women’s game especially, is that it offers lessons for how to advance gender equity and inclusion off the pitch. That’s because sport is not just about leisure and entertainment. It also serves as an instructive playbook for how to improve diversity and equity in the corporate world. 

All eyes will be on the defending champions, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT). The team is stocked with talent and seeks to claim a historic third consecutive victory. But Team USA has significant wins off the pitch as well, advocating for gender equality, with an almost 30-year track record of activism in their fight for greater equity and, since 2016, equal pay. In 2019, the team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against their employer, the US Soccer Federation (USSF), which was settled in 2022.  

As a result, the women’s national team players earn equal pay through “identical economic terms” as the men’s players, while players from both teams equally split all FIFA prize monies. The settlement was touted as “historic” and a means to “set the global standard,” by USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone, herself a former USWNT member who since 2020 worked from within to bring a resolution to the lawsuit 

These successful decades-long efforts have also likely influenced players and teams around the world, demonstrating that progress by one can build towards progress for others or in other areas.  

“It’s no secret that playing sports imparts key skills that translate to the corporate world. From teamwork, leadership, and grit, learning how to accept feedback from failure, resilience, and the ability to maintain forward thinking, to mental tenacity, confidence, and self-belief, these traits are hugely beneficial in any business. ”

The Australian Matildas inked a historic deal of their own in 2019 that focused on pay parity between the women’s and men’s national teams. Since then, other women’s sides have worked to close the gap. The Spanish Football Federation announced in June 2022 that it would pay their female and male footballers the same percentages in bonuses. Most recently, in January, Wales announced that its women’s and men’s national team players will now receive equal pay.  

But there remain ongoing struggles, too. The Nigerian Super Falcons – the most dominant African national team – have staged sit-ins since 2004 to protest their lack of payment. They are considering a boycott of their first World Cup match to protest continued disagreements with the Nigerian Football Federation over pay.  

Then there’s the case of Argentina forward Estefanía Banini, which gained international attention that year. Banini, who previously played for the Washington Spirit (USA), now stars with Atletico Madrid (Spain), two countries in which the push for greater equality in women’s football have gained tempo. It is difficult to imagine that her advocacy work is not informed by the knowledge she shared with her American and other international teammates over the years, learning from each other about how to advocate for equity and how to power-up efforts. For her efforts, Banini was left off the Argentine roster for this year’s World Cup  

The impact of the fight for equal or equitable pay reaches far beyond the elite rungs of international football, influencing women and girl players globally. Documentary film maker Kely Nascimento encountered this phenomenon first-hand when shooting footage for her forthcoming film, Warrior Women of Football, in Zanzibar.  

She recalled how female players in that Muslim-majority island off Africa’s southern coast were inspired by the USWNT’s fight for equal pay: 

The girls wanted us to know that they had read online that the women in the United States were fighting for respect. The women, the players, asking for equal money. ‘When you get home, I want you to tell them that they make us feel proud.

Sports can inspire business  

Sports can change the conversation about gender, shift stereotypes, and generate new images of strong role models. That’s because sports shapes norms. 

The sporting world offers exemplary solutions for addressing gender inequality, starting with hiring practices. There’s a clear correlation between women who have played/play sport and female leadership in society and the workforce more generally. According to an Ernst and Young/espnW study, 80% of female Fortune 500 CEOs played sports in their formative years.  

It’s no secret that playing sports imparts key skills that translate to the corporate world. From teamwork, leadership, and grit, learning how to accept feedback from failure, resilience, and the ability to maintain forward thinking, to mental tenacity, confidence, and self-belief, these traits are hugely beneficial in any business. 

Moreover, it’s important that society and industry can see visible role models. Successful CEOs, ambassadors, and presidents of international organisations, such as Christine Lagarde (European Central Bank), Irene Rosenfeld (Mondelêz), Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), and Meg Whitman (US Ambassador to Kenya, formerly of Hewlett-Packard and eBay) all played sports. Leaders who look for solutions or ways to improve their internal teams can benefit from those who have competed, at any level. 

The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup will be jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, and is scheduled to take place from 20 July to 20 August 2023.

Here’s how managers can learn from women in sports to drive greater equity and inclusion:



Heather Cairns-Lee

Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication

Heather Cairns-Lee is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication at IMD. She is a member of IMD’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Council and an experienced executive coach. She works to develop reflective and responsible leaders and caring inclusive cultures in organizations and society.



Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian and author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France 1958-2010. She is a lecturer at New York University and a Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London.

Corinne Post

Visiting Faculty at IMD

Corinne Post is Visiting Faculty at IMD, where she directs the Inclusive Leadership Program. Her research addresses questions related to diversity and diversity management, notably on women and boards and in top management teams. It also examines the role of diversity as enabler or impediment to group and organizational performance.


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

Log in or register to enjoy the full experience

Explore first person business intelligence from top minds curated for a global executive audience