The worldwide gender pay gap is especially striking in the world of athletics. In 2018 everyone on Forbes 100 highest-paid athletes list was male; in 2019 only one of those athletes, Serena Williams, was a woman (Abrams). This is harmful not only the professional athletes but to all women and girls. Pay disparities in men’s and women’s professional sports stem from a history of the culture around women playing sports. To understand the injustices faced by female athletes throughout history, we must look at the underlying cause which is the attitude of our society towards women’s sports and female athletes.
“As it currently stands, we are telling our female athletes that it doesn’t matter how good they are—they will never be worth equal or more to their male competitor”(“Women in Professional Sports”)
An Overview and My Interest
What you need to know
Why we have a gender pay gap
While overt sexism plays a part, what we’ve established in our society as traditional gender roles and how we define masculinity and femininity hurts female athletes and their salaries. Not wanting to disrupt the balance of traditional gender roles has minimized support for women’s professional sports and discouraged girls and women from pursuing sports. These ideas make athletics a masculine domain and has caused female athletes to compensate by overtly expressing their femininity. This leads to the public ignoring their athleticism and not being taken as seriously. This overt feminization usually is manifested through the sexualization of female athletes in the media. “Women are likelier than men to be sexualized on sports magazine covers” and most magazine articles “emphasize gender when portraying a woman” (Jacobs).
The problems women face in sports now and unequal pay can all be traced back to these main points. Every step forward and every action taken has been restricted because of this.
“Women have always had a problem in athletics. Women athletes are not accepted as women because they are athletes and thought to be unfeminine. They are not accepted as athletes because they are women”
-Ruth Berkely, the director of women’s championships for the NCAA in 1981 (White)
“I’m a woman first, a boxer second”
–Christy Martin, the first female boxer (“Cheering on Women and Girls in Sports: Using Title IX to Fight Gender Role Oppression”)
The unsuccessful fight for equal pay in sports
US Women’s National Soccer Team Lawsuit
In March of 2019, all 28 players on the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation for not having equal pay and conditions for their men’s and women’s programs (“U.S. women’s soccer team has more than earned equal pay”).
First, they demonstrated that they are not paid as well as the men. They proved that if both teams played 20 friendly games, a top tier women’s player would earn only 38% of what a top tier male player would earn. In the 2014 World Cup, the men’s team lost in the first round and received $5,375,000, while the women were only given $1,725,000 for winning the entire tournament in 2015 (Kelly).
The USWNT also illustrated that they are in fact a better team. The women’s team has won 4 out of the 8 total Women’s World Cup titles while the men’s team has never won. (“U.S. women’s soccer team has more than earned equal pay”). Since their win in the 2015 World Cup, the USWNT has also generated more revenue, from games, for The US Soccer Federation than the men’s team has. In 2016 alone, the women’s team generated almost $2 million more profit than the men (Kelly). And as proof of their large fanbase, the US Women’s team’s jersey is the best selling Nike soccer jersey in the US (“U.S. women’s soccer team has more than earned equal pay”).
Why wasn’t the effort successful?
Recognizing that they do not pay the teams equally, the US Soccer Federation decided to argue instead that women do not play equally. In a March 2020 court filing, “the US Soccer Federation [argued] male players have ‘more responsibility’ and the men’s team ‘requires a higher level of skill’ than their female counterparts” (Johnson). So instead of pursuing equality, the US Soccer Federation, which governs all soccer in the US, is arguing the men’s game is superior to the women’s. They are arguing that the women don’t even deserve equal pay (Johnson). This ideology remains because of the centuries of history in America that have generated a negative attitude towards female athletes. “Unfortunately, many…(people) still subscribe to negative stereotypes about women who enter sports” (Hansen).
IMAGE SOURCE: (Zirin)
Women’s National Basketball Association
Following the momentum created by the USWNT, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) took action against the unequal pay and working conditions they face. A players union was formed, and they dropped out of their old Collective Bargaining Decision (CBD). The league announced a new CBD in January of 2020 which had many improvements to the conditions for the players, including pay raises, full paid maternity leave, and better accommodations for travel (Cash).
Why wasn’t the effort successful?
While this was a step in the right direction, it still leaves the women far away from equality with NBA players. The new CBD raises the maximum WNBA salary by almost $100,000, to $215,000 (Cash). Comparing this to the 35.7 million dollars Lebron James made in 2019 (not including his $53 million in endorsements), demonstrates how little the WNBA players have the potential to earn (Gough). The minimum NBA salary for the 2018-2019 season was about $500,000. So bench players who never step foot on the court automatically earn more money than the best WNBA players. Even the NBA referees make more than WNBA champs (Hill).
IMAGE SOURCE: (Decker)
The reason salaries can’t be raised more is just simple economics. “On average (the WNBA has lost) over $10 million every year we’ve operated,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the Associated Press in October (“WNBA Crossroads: League Looks to Cut Losses, Hire President”). The WNBA is subsidized by the NBA and would not be able to survive without direct financial support. The annual WNBA revenue is $25 million compared to $7.4 billion for the NBA (Hill).
The problem is that there isn’t enough fan support for the WNBA. In the 2018 season, there were only around 7,000 fans in attendance at games, compared to almost 20,000 at NBA games (Sandomir). The fact that people don’t come to women’s basketball games goes back to the biases and stereotypes about women rather than the quality of their play. “The financial success of professional athletes has almost nothing to do with their talent and everything to do with the entertainment the public receives from it” (“WNBA Crossroads: League Looks to Cut Losses, Hire President”). WNBA president Lisa Borders said “Let’s be clear, there is a lot of sexism that still goes on. People do not believe that women can be superb professional athletes” (Hill).
Additionally, the sexualization of female athletes in the media is also connected to fewer fans and lower attendance at games. “Women are likelier than men to be sexualized on sports magazine covers” and most magazine articles “emphasize gender when portraying a woman” (Jacobs). Sexualizing athletes puts more emphasis on their bodies and appearances, and less on their athletic abilities. Focus groups of college students reported that “seeing those images doesn’t make anyone want to watch more sports. A woman hard driving a basketball down a basketball court did” (Brown). Sexualization of female athletes in the media leads to less support for female sports. This and the fact that a lot of people still conform to the idea that sports are a male domain minimizes the chance to have equal pay between genders.
There are many things we can do to work towards closing the gender pay gap in athletics. There are micro solutions for individuls to do and larger scale macro solutions.
Micro Individual Solutions:
- As you’ve seen, the existing culture in the United States harbors ideologies, stereotypes and strict definitions of femininity and masculinity. These are the root causes that make it almost impossible for women to have equal pay in athletics. Rules and regulations won’t ever really solve the problem, what needs to happen for any change to occur is we all need to consciously make an effort to minimize our own personal stereotypes and biases and attempt to rethink the way we define masculinity and femininity. As one example, “try to resist sexualized images by not purchasing magazines that perpetuate them” (Christian). There needs to be a big change, and that change has to come from individuals looking inside themselves to make an effort to adapt their own ideas.
- A very simple solution step is to attend or watch women’s sports events. Like the WNBA, a lot of women’s sports leagues don’t have enough attendance at games or TV viewers to make a profit. Until these leagues make even close to the amount that the mens’ equivalents do, there is no way for them to pay their athletes equally. Leagues make money when people buy tickets and when people watch the games on TV. You might find that you really enjoy watching these games, just as much as the men’s games. Here are the schedules for various leagues for different sports:
- Another solution is to support equal access to sports for girls and women in sports overall, such as supporting the Women’s Sports Foundation. Founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King, a long time advocate for wage equality and equity in sports, the Women’s Sports foundation helps all women and girls in sports. “You don’t have to be an athlete, you don’t even have to be a woman. You just have to share the vision of enabling all girls and women to experience the physical and mental benefits of sports participation.” There are many ways to support the women’s sports foundation including donating money, volunteering to be an advocate, helping at or participating in events, joining The Equity Project and taking their pledge, along with many other opportunities. The Equity Project works to “inspire the nation and create meaningful change so that all girls and women have equitable access to physical activity and sport, to help unlock limitless possibilities in their lives.” You can take the pledge and find many other ways to get involved here:
Macro Societal Solutions
- Brands have the potential to “be incredibly influential allies in this quest for change” (Lebel). Big companies have a lot of power in the sports world. They can sponsor teams and tournaments or endorse individual players. These brands can use their clout to influence people to be in favor of equal pay and give the much needed financial support to close the gender pay gap. Right now, only 0.4% of all sports sponsorship money goes to female sports (Lebel). If more brands give sports sponsorships to any women’s teams, leagues or tournaments, and demand gender equality, it could bring us closer to closing the gender wage gap in sports.
- Universal pay transparency would be beneficial to close the gender pay gap, not only in sports but in the workplace overall. It eliminates uncertainty and sheds more light on the injustices faced. It should be very clear what women’s salaries are vs men. For the USWNT’s lawsuit, the numbers were very murky and questioned by many critics. Pay transparency would make it extremely clear the scope of the difference in salaries and leave no doubt that the women were being paid much less. In sports, this also means talking a lot more about compensation. (Runcie) These issues can not be ignored, more female athletes need to talk about their salaries and not step back or keep quiet.
Call to Action
Now it’s up to you to try to implement some of these possible solutions. In particular, try to change your own view of, and actions or comments about female athletes so we can work towards modifying the culture around them. I really believe that we can get to a point where our society values female athletes just as much as male athletes, and therefore close the gender pay gap, but that has to start with you and other individuals making that effort. If you want, in the comments write what you can do or change specifically in your life to address this. I greatly appreciate any feedback or comments!