Oct 31 2006

Girl Power

Soccer superstar Mia Hamm talks about succeeding in male-dominated fields, balancing sports and academics, and the importance of believing in yourself.

Susie Sullivan

RECENTLY, ED TECH SENIOR EDITOR Susie Sullivan caught up with soccer star Mia Hamm at the Chicago launch of the NikeGO Head Start initiative. This initiative, aimed at preschool children and their families at Head Start sites around the nation, is designed to get kids physically active. Hamm talked about her experiences in the worlds of sports and academics, as well as life in general.

Hamm certainly knows a lot about breaking gender barriers and records. She currently holds the world record as the all-time scoring leader—male or female—in soccer with 158 goals scored in international competition. Hamm also was a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic team and won gold medals in 1996 and 2004.

By the time she retired from soccer last December, she had racked up numerous awards and achievements, including a degree in political science from the University of North Carolina in 1994.

According to Hamm, earning her college degree is one of her most important accomplishments. Although numerous academic and professional gender barriers have fallen during the years, some people still consider traditionally male-dominated areas to be off-limits to young women. Girls are often discouraged from participating in areas such as technology, math, science and sports—whether overtly or on a subconscious level—by family, peers and even teachers.

According to the American Association of University Women, which is based in Washington, D.C., young women aren’t moving into those fields with the same frequency that they did 20 years ago. In 1984, women received 37 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science, while only 28 percent graduate with that degree today. And women make up just one-fifth of IT professionals.

Here’s what Hamm said about the challenges that young women still face and how she found success in the fields of both sports and academics.

Ed Tech: The areas of sports, math, science and information technology are traditionally dominated by men in both the educational and professional worlds. What advice can you offer young women considering these male-dominated fields? Do you have recommendations for girls who want to break into that “guy” society?

Hamm: For me the breakthrough was getting into sports. My parents were great examples for me and raised me in an environment where I felt empowered to do whatever I believed I could do. You have people telling you, “Well, usually girls don’t compete in this,” or if it’s math and sciences, “It’s a male-dominated area.”

But my parents never made me feel that I was different or odd in trying to do it. They always encouraged me, as well as my siblings. For me, that encouragement was extremely important.

Ed Tech: What about girls—the jocks or the brains—who are teased or feel they are considered less attractive than other girls because of their athleticism or intellect? Did you find that a problem?

Hamm: I was called a tomboy. And I was a tomboy growing up. But the confidence that you instill in yourself helps, and I gained a lot of that from the example my parents set for me.

Ed Tech: What about balancing sports and academics?

Hamm: That’s extremely important. I received a scholarship, and I was going to get my degree and set myself up [in a career]. Sports are something you can do only for a certain amount of time. But the lessons that you learn from participating in sports can be used for the rest of your life. With my education, I wanted to prepare myself for life outside of sports.

Ed Tech: How did you manage to balance the two? It must have been difficult, especially in college, given the intensity of the level at which you played.

Hamm: I was motivated [to succeed] in both sports and academics. I couldn’t participate in one if I didn’t take care of the other.

And sports actually enabled me to go to an institution, the University of North Carolina, which I probably wouldn’t have been able to attend if I didn’t participate in sports. It was important to me to make the most of that opportunity.

Just the Facts: Mia Hamm

Name: Mariel Margaret Hamm

Birth Date: March 17, 1972

Birthplace: Selma, Ala.

Current Residence: Chicago

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina in 1994.

Achievements: National Collegiate Athletic Association: Won four NCAA championships with the University of North Carolina in 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1993; led the nation in scoring at the collegiate level in 1990, 1992 and 1993.

World Cup: Youngest player, at age 19, on the world-championship-winning U.S. Team at the Fédération Internationale de Football Association Women's World Cup in 1991; led the U.S. to the World Championship at FIFA Women's World Cup in 1999.

Olympics: Member of the gold-medal-winning 1996 U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta; member of the silver-medal-winning 2000 U.S. Olympic team in Sydney, Australia; member of the gold-medal-winning 2004 U.S. Olympic team in Athens, Greece; first soccer player to carry the U.S. flag for the Olympic closing ceremony in 2004.

Hobbies: Golf, cooking, watching college basketball

Community: Started the Mia Hamm Foundation in 1999 to raise funds and awareness for bone marrow transplant patients and to help provide more opportunities for girls in sports.