This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

When you think about what makes a future female politician, you might think about Girl Scouts, the student council, Young Republicans. But a recent study shows that women who play sports when they're young might be more likely to run for office. Alexandra Starr reports.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York tries to play tennis a couple of times a week. Sports have been part of her life for a long time.

SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: In high school, I played tennis at Emma Willard. I also played soccer.

STARR: Later, at Dartmouth in the late 1980s, Gillibrand served as co-captain of the squash team. What the future senator did not do in college was participate in student government.

GILLIBRAND: I'd gone to one or two young Democratic events, and interestingly, it was almost all male. And all of the men were very aggressive. And so I didn't really feel like I fit in.

STARR: Obviously, running for office in college makes it much more likely the student will get into public life after graduating. But doing competitive sports is also a good indicator of political ambition.

For a study that came out last year, Jennifer Lawless at American University asked 2,100 college students if they would consider a career in politics.

JENNIFER LAWLESS: The effect was quite substantial. Women who played sports and were competitive playing sports were about 25 percent more likely to express interest in running for office later in life.

STARR: Now, there's a boost for men, too, but it's not as big. Serious male athletes are about 15 percent more likely to think about getting into politics. Thing is, men across the board are already much more disposed than women to run. So Lawless sees encouraging girls to play sports as one way to start equalizing male and female political ambition.

LAWLESS: It's clearly a way that we can generate more interest among women and get them to think about running for office.

STARR: Now, casually participating in sports isn't enough to have an impact on political ambition. It's the athletes who say they really care about winning who are more likely to consider running. Lawless says there are a couple of skills they pick up playing sports that transfer well to politics.

LAWLESS: The first is the ability to compete and the willingness to lose. In most cases, if you like sports and you're competitive, although you probably prefer to win, you've gained some familiarity with losing and you know that it's not the end of the world.

STARR: That squares with Gillibrand's experience. She says it was a squash match she lost in college that proved most formative.

GILLIBRAND: I played one tough match that I remember at Yale. And I was so over my head, I got crushed.

STARR: She says it was painful at the time, but it also helped prepare her for the contact sport of politics later in life.

GILLIBRAND: I think it takes a level of fear out of something like running for office and putting yourself out there in a competitive contest and letting people choose.

STARR: Gillibrand is far from the only female athlete serving on Capitol Hill. Senator Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire was a competitive skier in college. She and Gillibrand are in their forties. They're among the youngest members of the U.S. Senate. There are also female jocks serving in the U.S. House.

JESSICA GROUNDS: Tulsi Gabbard is a 32-year-old congresswoman, and she's participated in a lot of martial arts training and is also an avid surfer.

STARR: That's Jessica Grounds, co-founder of the group Running Start. That organization encourages women, in particular younger women, to run for office. As Grounds points out, politicians like Gillibrand and Ayotte came of age after the passage of Title IX in 1972. That's the legislation that mandated girls and women have equal access to playing sports.

GROUNDS: We see strong correlations between women who played sports and are now successful CEOs of companies and are not only running for office but successful in their leadership positions.

STARR: Since Title IX passed, the number of girls and women participating in school sports went from about 300,000 to more than 3 million. That has implications beyond high school playing fields. It seems it could also make a difference in women's representation in company boardrooms and Congress as well. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from