The US women’s soccer team is destroying every possible justification for pay inequality

Image: AP Photo/Mike Carlson
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On Friday, the US women’s soccer team defeated France in the World Cup quarterfinals in a match that some anticipated would be “the biggest game in women’s soccer history.” But off the field the US women’s team is engaged in a battle with even higher stakes: the fight for pay equality.

Last week, the US women’s soccer team and US Soccer Federation reportedly agreed to enter mediation over the lawsuit brought by all 28 players against their employer alleging gender discrimination; the Guardian’s analysis of each team’s collective bargaining agreements found that while US women’s soccer players have earned about $90,000 each in World Cup bonuses so far, they would have made $550,000 per person if they were paid like the men.

The fact that women players get paid less than their male counterparts is not in dispute. What US Soccer claimed in response to the lawsuit is that the pay gap is “based on differences in the aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex.” In other words, since the men bring in more money, they get paid more, too.

But that argument was complicated by a recent Wall Street Journal investigation, which found that US women’s soccer matches actually had stronger ticket sales and brought in more revenue from games than the men’s team between 2016 and 2018. Indeed, excitement about the US women’s team—and about the Women’s World Cup more broadly—is at an all-time high; FIFA expects a total of 1 billion viewers to tune in for the matches. With ticket prices breaking records and women’s national soccer players in places ranging from Australia and Norway to Brazil and Nigeria calling out the gender pay gap in their own countries, employers’ efforts to justify the wage gap look increasingly feeble in sports, and everywhere else, too.

Even if women soccer players did bring in less revenue than men, that still wouldn’t be a sufficient reason to pay them less. After all, as Travis Waldron wrote for HuffPost back in 2016, basing pay “solely on a market force like ‘revenue-generated income’ ignores the ways in which the gatekeepers of international soccer have systematically suppressed the women’s game for years, keeping them from having the chance to generate similar revenues.” In other words, if women at a given workplace are consistently being paid less than men, it’s a problem no matter what the “reason” is—because the reason, whether it has to do with revenue, salary history, or the level of seniority at which women are being hired into jobs, can probably be traced back to structural sexism in the first place.

In an age when too many women are still told that the secret to getting paid fairly is to “lean in” and stay strong in salary negotiations, the US women’s soccer team offers a timely reminder that equal pay isn’t an individual issue—it’s a collective one. As Ephrat Livni wrote in Quartz last year, “The truth is that women face biases that are far too profound and complex to expect any individual to resolve them on their own.” The message coming now from soccer stars like Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press is perhaps a sign that we’re entering a new era of justified impatience with the wage gap, in which more women will band together to tell the institutions that reliably undervalue them: You created the problem. Now fix it.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of gender equality in the workplace and beyond. Read more stories here