A viral video of the makeshift weight rooms at this year’s NCAA March Madness tournament, posted by University of Oregon’s Sedona Prince, gained national attention for encapsulating the gender disparity that exists between men’s and women’s sports.
The dumbbells — or lack thereof — represented a heavy truth for female athletes in the United States.
Both the US women’s national teams in hockey and soccer have fought for increases in wages and equitable treatment, arguing that the value they bring to global events like the Olympics and world championships isn’t being fairly compensated. In 2017, members of the women’s hockey team reached a landmark four-year deal with USA Hockey after threatening a boycott.
“It was just like, enough is enough,” said Olympic gold medalist and former national hockey team captain Meghan Duggan. “We’re a generation of women (who) are ready to use our voices and stop saying, you know, ‘Oh, we should be thankful for what we do have.'”
The US women’s national soccer team filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation in 2019 alleging that USSF’s payment practices amount to federal discrimination by paying women less than men “for substantially equal work and by denying them at least equal playing, training, and travel conditions; equal promotion of their games; equal support and development for their games; and other terms and conditions of employment equal to the MNT.”
In April of this year, a federal judge approved a partial settlement between the women’s team and USSF over better working conditions. The judge dismissed the player’s claims of unequal pay, and the team appealed that ruling.
Women on the team, like star forward Alex Morgan, have maintained they’ve had to work harder and execute at a much higher level on the world’s stage to make the money they have.
“Our contracts are not apples to apples, they’re different,” Morgan said. “The benefits that we receive are different from the men …
“It’s really breaking those down line by line and making sure that we have the ability to make as much as a man would, given the amount of games we play and the teams we play and the success that we’ve had on the international stage.”
But USSF maintains the women negotiated a contract that provides them more stability than the men’s team.
“The women … wanted a guaranteed salary so they get paid regardless if they play and then they have a bonus on top of that if they win,” USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone, a former USWNT player, told CNN. “The bonuses in the past have been higher for the men than the women because the men don’t get that guaranteed pay of $100,000 a year.”
Parlow Cone stressed that she and USSF are “100% committed to equal pay,” but “the main challenge is this massive discrepancy in FIFA’s World Cup prize money.”
“FIFA awards more money to our men’s team for qualifying for the World Cup than our women’s team gets for winning,” Parlow Cone noted. She said USSF has asked the men’s and women’s teams “to get together with US Soccer so we can a find a way to equalize (the FIFA World Cup prize money) between the teams.”
Overall, the average salaries of professional female athletes are making small-scale gains over time. But the pay gap is still wide. Millions of dollars separate the women and men when it comes to average annual salaries in professional hockey and basketball.
Many WNBA players still must play overseas to provide for their families.
WNBA star Candace Parker says it’s not about making a salary equal to the men, but ensuring women are given a platform to succeed.
“I’m a realist. You know, I realize that the WNBA is 25 years young. The NBA has been around for 75 years.” Parker says. “I understand that just because LeBron makes $90 million a year, it doesn’t (mean I should).
“But it’s the perception of what women athletes are, in the sense that they cannot sell …
“We’re seeing now that women athletes are able to point to their social media following and are really honestly able to monetize that.”
Parker is not the only prominent female athlete or executive to point to corporate investment as the area that can have a tangible effect on closing the pay gap.
Diversity in the business sector is a key to the push for equal pay in sports, coaching legend Muffet McGraw says.
“We need to hire more women at the administrative level, we need to hire them to be leaders of companies, so that we can change the discrimination that exists and the pay,” said the former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach. “When you sit in a room and you have all white men on a board doing the hiring, they’re going to hire people who look like them. We need to get more women in there so we can get a more diverse culture.”
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has an acute understanding of the impact that the C-suite can have on women’s sports. Engelbert was the first female CEO of Deloitte before joining the league in 2019.
“It is important to make sure there’s investment, and that it’s viewed as investment in women’s sports, to drive the economic model so we can pay the players more, give them better benefits and better travel,” she said.
“If 85% of all consumer purchasing decisions are made or influenced by women, and you’re a women’s professional sports team that skews more toward women fans, you just have to get the narrative right so that companies can see the value of supporting women’s professional sports.”
In 2020 for example, Engelbert said WNBA viewership was up 68% over a crowded sports landscape. She believes that comes with exposure on larger networks, coupled with a commitment to storytelling and building the narratives of household names.
Social media platforms for young women are also a transformative tool. Now more than ever, young women are speaking up when they see gender inequity.
And there have been some positive signs. At the end of last month, Michelob Ultra committed $100 million to marketing women’s sports over the next five years.
And AIG set a new benchmark in the LPGA with a total payout of $5.8 million for the tournament they sponsor.
One of the titans of gender equity, Billie Jean King, summed up what so many women in sports feel:
“As a girl growing up, I was always taught to be so grateful for the crumbs. Women are taught that. No more. We are only going to be happy with the cake, the icing and the cherry on top. We deserve it, and we’re going to go for it. No more being happy with the crumbs.”