She's still a leader, only in a new field

Women's sports: College president Karen Stout is among a growing number of female former athletes who are finding that the team lessons of their youth lead to wins in the boardroom, too.

April 22, 2003|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

When Karen Stout tackles thorny issues, the college president makes choices without flinching. To do that, she draws on her jerseyed past as a teenage athlete.

"However I handled stress during games, I've used it to withstand the pressure of being a college president," says Stout, 41, who grew up in Bel Air and went on to become head of Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College.

One contest comes to mind: an American Legion softball game in 1978. Stout's team lost in the national quarterfinals, 1-0, in 15 innings. She got two hits but also left two runners stranded at third base.

"I still have vivid memories of that night," Stout says. "Imagine the pressure of a scoreless game that long."

The defeat was a flashpoint in her life, as big as any winning hit, tiebreaking goal or buzzer-beating basket she made.

"I was 17, but I grew up that game," she says. Now, as she copes with college staffing and budget dilemmas, Stout calls time out and reflects: "I went hitless with runners on third, and I survived, so whatever happens here will be OK."

This, from an athlete who, in her day, was stellar. Twenty-five years ago, The Evening Sun named Stout the first female recipient of its Prep Athlete of the Year award. She edged a rising tennis star from McDonogh School named Pam Shriver.

Stout starred in three sports at Bel Air High, arriving after the onset of Title IX in 1972, which promised young women equality on the playing fields. Her experiences are relevant now as Title IX is under scrutiny by federal officials studying its repercussions on men's sports and women's accomplishments.

Playing sports in school gives women more oomph to climb the corporate ladder, according to a 2001 Oppenheimer survey of 401 female business executives. Of the CEOs polled, 82 percent said they'd competed. Those who played noted what they learned: teamwork, discipline, leadership skills and the ability to cope with failure.

Get tough

"Women who play sports are toughened in a way unlike those who don't," says Molly Shepard, a career development consultant in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Males have long made the most of those mental calluses, she says: "Boys who play team sports may be coached by loud or abrasive men, so when they get into the business world, criticism rolls off their backs much easier than it does for women who lack that experience."

But today's female athletes, she says, like men then and now, have experienced both the critiques and camaraderie of team play. The women can better hold their own, particularly in casual business settings such as corporate golf outings.

"Women represent 50 percent of management, but only 5 percent of executive positions," says Shepard. "One reason: We don't feel included in the information loop. If we learn to banter more, be more collegial and work as a team at an earlier age, and it carries through [career-wise], then we'll be more included."

Chris Shelton, co-author of the book Women On Power, Leadership Redefined, says it's obvious girls who play sports are improving their physical fitness, but less apparent that they're honing their character.

"Some of these sociological benefits -- resilience, stick-to-it-tiveness and pushing oneself to the limits -- haven't been articulated that well," says Shelton, a Catonsville High graduate who is an associate professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.

On the other hand, there's a dark side to gender equity. "Girls learn how to bend rules to win and to move themselves ahead of a teammate" to gain stature, says Shelton, a former tennis star.

She says that, because of Title IX, "women in the business world today who are in their 30s had the chance to compete from Little League all the way through college. But talk to women in their 50s and they say, `I never had that chance. I was taught how to run, throw and jump, but not how to be on a team.' "

Stout emerged from the group in between, the girls who pioneered in matters ranging from the games they played -- field hockey, lacrosse and even soccer were upstarts in many locales -- to sports scholarships.

Even as a child, Stout was an athletic wannabe, playing catch at age 5 with her dad. Bill Stout would grasp a tennis ball, wind up and, with an exaggerated kick, announce: "Here comes my famous curve that no one has ever caught!"

"Karen dug her heels in," he remembers. "I can still see the concentration on her face as she tried to catch it."

At 12, Stout wanted to become the first female Oriole. By high school, she'd opted to lead Bel Air to state titles in field hockey and softball. She captained both undefeated teams, plus the basketball squad, whose uniforms were undergoing radical changes in the 1970s.

Stout pulls out a faded snapshot of a skinny ninth-grader wearing a tunic dress and white blouse, with collar. "It's amazing we could shoot in those outfits," she says. Shorts and jerseys came a year later.

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