Although the law in Denmark formally regards men and women as equal, the reality may not be as equal as we believe. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, Denmark lags significantly behind its Scandinavian neighbors in this regard. Out of the 156 participating countries in the study, Denmark ranks 29th, while Iceland is 1st, Finland 2nd, Norway 3rd, and Sweden 5th.

Men are particularly overrepresented in top positions within the Danish labor market, despite the known benefits of diversity in leadership roles, including a positive impact on the bottom line.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2021

The report compares gender differences on four parameters: economy, education and employment, health and survival, and political empowerment. On the index of gender equality in the world, Denmark has moved from 14th to 29th place between 2020 and 2021. The numbers from the surveys show that we will not achieve gender equality until the year 2158 if we continue as we are now.

Similar disparities are found in sports. Although equal numbers of men and women participate in sports associations, significant imbalances exist in terms of pay and representation in specific sports. Efforts to promote gender equality are underway in both the business world and sports across Denmark. However, progress is slow, and Denmark's ranking on the Global Gender Gap Index has fallen from 8th place in 2006 to 29th in 2021.

To address this issue and promote greater gender equality in leadership and board positions, one approach could involve actively seeking qualified women. Cecilie Mørch Hansen's June 2021 thesis suggests that Danish businesses should actively recruit female team sports athletes, as they develop skills that can be advantageous in leadership roles.


How personality traits developed in professional team sports can be relevant as a leader.

The Study

The study examines the perceptions of former female athletes regarding the ways elite-level team sports can foster the development of personality traits relevant to leadership roles. The research comprises eight qualitative interviews with former female professional team sports athletes who now occupy leadership positions. The Five Factor Model (McCrae & John 1992) and the Life Skills Transfer process (Pierce et al. 2017) are used to determine which personality traits are developed by athletes and how these traits can be transferable and useful in other contexts.


The study's conclusions reveal that the sports context can contribute to the development of several aspects of the five personality traits in the Five Factor Model.

Openness may be developed in terms of adaptability and openness to change.

Conscientiousness may be developed in terms of hard work, goal orientation, structure, responsibility, and discipline, and extraversion in terms of high energy and drive. Agreeableness may be developed through collaboration, acceptance of different types of people, and relationship building. However, the competitive nature of professional team sports may also result in the development of lower agreeableness, as athletes can be selfish in their pursuit of victory and playing time. Lower levels of neuroticism (emotional stability) may be developed through coping with adversity, such as mistakes, defeat, or injury. Athletes learn to perform under pressure, developing mental toughness as they are assessed and evaluated from an early age, and learning to meet and set expectations.

Former female athletes share their journey to leadership roles

Camilla Andersen, former professional handball player. Today owner and CEO of Travel Sense.

Former professional handball player Camilla Andersen is now the owner and CEO of the travel company Travel Sense. She was one of Denmark's biggest handball stars, and she can safely say that her time in elite handball has given her some of the skills that have led to her thriving in a leadership role today.

"I wasn't born as a leader, I'm sure of that. I was the shy twin who didn't dare to do anything. I only started playing handball because my sister did it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have dared. I probably had some kind of diagnosis back then, but it's clear that the self-confidence I gained through sports lifted me up. There were people who trusted me, and it became my role to control the attack. I was given more responsibility, and that's how the inner leader in me grew."

The journey from the handball court to the business world

"I had always dreamed of playing on the national team. Actually, mostly the men's national team. That's where most of my role models played. I started playing handball when I was 12, which may sound a bit late, but I had an advantage in my height and size - at that time, I was the same size as I am now."

In her dream of playing for the men's national team, Camilla Andersen started in the Virum Sorgenfri Handball Club. The local club where her father was already the coach for the club's men's team. Camilla played all her youth years in the club and only switched to Frederiksberg Sports Association (FIF) as a senior player. She played one year in the new club in Frederiksberg before taking the big leap abroad. First, she brought her handball bag to Norway, and then the journey went to Germany. It was here that the great personal development from the shy girl to the captain really took off.

“In Germany, I had the best time playing handball in my career. We didn't win much, but I developed a lot as a person and also as a player. I arrived as a humble and spoiled Scandinavian to a club that was the epitome of strict discipline. There was a lot of discipline, and sometimes it was pure survival. Here, I found out that I actually perform best in an elitist environment where people expect something from me. It took hard work and training to gain respect here, and those are some of the things I have taken with me from the sport.”

Even the longest journey starts with a single step

After a few years in Germany, Camilla moved on to Norway. They were establishing a powerhouse team with a lot of stars. Camilla was on their wish list, and she took the chance. But after just one year with a lot of setbacks, Camilla wanted to go back to Denmark. A concerned manager said to her: "But what do you want to do there, there is no money in handball in Denmark?" Camilla didn't hesitate and replied: "No, but then I must get a job and an education." She had to go home.

Camilla Andersen had always thought that she would need an education to fall back on when she hung up her handball shoes and put the resin ball in the closet. The motivation to get an education came from home, but she got the idea for the travel agency while on the team bus.

“It all came about because someone from my team in Germany worked for a German charter travel agency, and she brought a travel catalog a few times a year. And then we sat there on our 12-hour bus ride to southern Germany and looked through it, and I thought it could be really cool. It sounds like a fun thing to sell trips. One day, I told my manager that it was what I wanted to do, and then it took just a day, and I had an apprenticeship in a travel agency. And then it started in the summer of '97. At the same time, I played for FIF. And I played there for four years, and after two years, I graduated and got a permanent job at the travel agency.”

The travel agency where Camilla worked was sold to a larger company, and she did not feel that her need to spend time on handball was being recognized. The hard-shooting playmaker wanted to do something else, and in 2002 she decided to start her own business. This was how Travel Sense was born. Since 2002, Camilla has been at the helm of the company as CEO. A role that her time as a sports athlete has contributed to both positively and negatively.

"I have taken from sports that I can stay focused and accept reality. This has been important during the pandemic. But it's not just now in relation to this crisis, it's all the time when running a business where I use my energy on what I can actually do something about, while at the same time keeping going. Hard work really means something in the business world, just as it does in the world of sports."

Cynicism from an expert woman

"I really like taking responsibility, and I'm not afraid of defeat in that way, but maybe I've become a bit cynical through sports. I'm very direct, because I've learned through handball that in the heat of the moment, you shouldn't take things personally, and in business, every day is a battle. Just this thing about setting expectations for people can be difficult for some. Some truths come out when you, as a leader, have to set expectations for your employees."

Handball has given Camilla perseverance and made her action-oriented, and at the same time, she has developed a competitive mindset that sets her apart from some of her employees.

"I also think there are some disadvantages coming from sports. I find it difficult to understand that people don't have the same drive as me - and are driven by competition, and constantly striving to get better at what you do. You can't just apply a leadership style across an organization, you have to look at each person, and say, what is it that really motivates you? And then understand what it takes for me to get the most out of you. That's what we're working on."

Equality in Denmark

Diversity in leadership has a positive impact on innovation, work environment, and bottom line (Danish Statistics 2017). The proportion of female leaders in 2017 was 20.4 percent, and the proportion was higher in the public than in the private sector. The number of female leaders was also higher at lower management levels than at the top management levels. In the private sector, female leaders typically have a long higher education (31.6 percent), and male leaders typically have a vocational education (28.6 percent) (Danish Statistics, 2017).

Maria Dueholm Sørensen, a former professional handball player. Today, district manager at Lagkagehuset.

The former handball player Maria Dueholm Sørensen's path to district manager at Lagkagehuset went through handball. From being a water carrier and getting splinters from sitting on the bench, she became one of the driving forces for Nykøbing Falster Handball Club. The journey through sport was not only a development of Maria's skill level, but also an education on a personal level:

"I have really been surprised at how much education I actually got from my handball career.

When people asked: "So, what have you studied," I have almost always felt a bit embarrassed because I haven't studied anything, I have just played handball. So I don't actually have an education.

But at one point, someone said to me, "Do you realize that you may have actually gone through the toughest education that one can possibly get? It's not a joke to have played handball at the top level."

And it was actually only then that I thought, "Hey, that's actually true." Because there are a lot of the situations I am in now as a leader that I can recognize one to one, where I think, "I learned this in my handball career. I learned to stand in this situation. Maybe I haven't done it on the handball court, but it's parameters from the handball life that have made me able to stand where I am today." And it was actually only then that there was a little pride that hit me that I actually have this education in my baggage.

Maria Dueholm started at Lagkagehuset in 2016, where the company was in a period of significant growth. Here, the former left back had the honor of opening several new stores. When she was offered the opportunity to become a district manager and have the full financial and managerial responsibility for all stores in a district after a year, she chose that it was time to end her handball career. In her current work with leadership, Marie can draw on the things she learned on the court.

"In handball, you have to dare to take up the fight, and you do what it takes to achieve great results. You know what it means to work hard. I think as a handball player you also learn to believe in the things you master. You dare to believe in your values and your abilities, and you need to do that as a leader too. If you start to hesitate about believing in yourself and what you stand for, you can quickly appear untrustworthy."

In addition to believing in her own abilities, versatility has been one of the competencies that Maria has taken home in her bag from handball.

During a handball career, you meet a lot of people, and not everyone becomes your best friend, but you accept all people as they are, because you need them on your team, and they make a difference for your team. Everyone must create results together, it is really something I stand for.

For Maria, the schooling in handball became an indirect education in leadership, where both teammates, opponents, and coaches were teachers. Especially a coach's selection got stuck with her and is advice that Maria repeatedly recalls.

"I had a big tendency that if someone said, 'Wow, that was a good goal,' my response was, 'Yes, but I also stood badly in defense.' At one point, my coach said to me, 'Sometimes you just have to say thank you.' It is really something that I have taken with me. You have to use successes for the things that are challenging."

Common to Camilla Andersen, Maria Dueholm Sørensen, and the other athletes interviewed for the article is that the sports context has helped develop the personality traits that strengthen them in their leadership positions today.

The former elite athletes' statements and reflections are a clear indication that skills can be transferred from one context to another. And the sports world is not a bad place to acquire skills because performing for several years in elite sports can be seen as a source of personal development in several ways.

Photo: Diego azubel


Photo: Diego azubel
Photo: Diego azubel


1. Danmarks Statistik. 2017. Kvinder i Ledelse. Danmarks Statistik, accessed February 15, 2021.