Playing like a girl doesn’t make you soft; it makes you a winner.
After combining her awareness of sports and its positive correlation with education, Play Like A Girl founder and behavioral scientist Dr. Kimberly Clay’s efforts have led to a partnership with the National Football League, pushing her mission to support the next generation of Black women in STEM.
Dr. Clay shared her journey toward closing the gender gap in education in an interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE.
Tell me a little bit about your background in STEM.
[I] began [my] career in public service as a program analyst in chronic disease prevention and health promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I later earned a Ph.D. in public health, which established me as a respected behavioral scientist and published author, funded by the National Cancer Institute for my pioneering work in cancer survivorship research. Prior to taking on the CEO role at Play Like a Girl full-time in 2010, I served as a tenure-track professor at the University of Georgia and Morehouse School of Medicine.
As a Black woman in STEM, how have you worked toward closing the gender gap in education?
Despite being the most educated demographic in America, Black women remain woefully underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Over the course of my 20-plus-year career, I have worked to create a more equal playing field for girls and persons of color. This has included intentional efforts to be a visible role model in environments where Black women are underrepresented, such as higher education.
As a tenure-track assistant professor, I trained and educated the next generation of Black women in STEM at a predominantly white institution. Today, through Play Like a Girl, I fund scholarships for young Black women pursuing a STEM degree at historically Black colleges or universities where they can easily find a community of supportive faculty and peers they need to ensure they reach their full potential.
Why is it important to spark girls’ interests in sports from a young age, and what strategies do you implement to get girls to participate in sports?
A 2018 study conducted by Ernst & Young found that 94% of women who hold C-suite positions are former athletes. Success in the business world demands a level of intensity and competition that is uniquely learned through sport. Yet, girls today drop out of sports at six times the rate of boys by age 14, forfeiting the natural benefits of sport participation.
Girls simply don’t receive the same positive reinforcement about sports participation as boys. The best way to keep girls playing is to encourage them and let them know that they belong and have reasons to play that extend far beyond the playing field. Play Like a Girl has created a positive social environment that intentionally fosters a sense of belonging, which is integral to keeping girls in the game.
What is the correlation between sports and STEM that will expand their physical and mental abilities?
‘Sport’ plays a significant role at every stage of women’s lives, from girls to C-suite executives. With their problem-solving skills and team-building experiences, women who have played sports are uniquely positioned to lead in the corporate world—especially in competitive, male-dominated fields like STEM.
Women athletes represent an often untapped leadership pipeline in the workplace. They are, by nature, high achievers, influential leaders, and team players who have tremendous value for business.
What types of character-building traits from sports can be transferred to executive leadership?
Women athletes have the confidence, leadership skills, and team-building abilities that can’t be taught in the classroom. And when they enter the board room, they have a unique advantage rooted in a strong work ethic and their deep levels of competitiveness and determination coupled with an unmatched ability to bounce back from failures and losses.
Please elaborate on your partnership with the NFL, how it supports your nonprofit’s mission, goals, and values, and what’s next for Play Like a Girl.
Play Like a Girl has partnered with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to level the playing field for girls and women since 2019. In addition to funding to support sports and STEM programs for middle school girls, this partnership has afforded Play Like a Girl the unique opportunity to align with current and former players who help us make good on our mission. Play Like a Girl is thrilled to partner with the NFLPA and NFL FLAG to bring STEM education to the Pro Bowl, Super Bowl, and FLAG Championship games in February 2023.