The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is Fighting for Another World Cup Title — and Equitable Pay

June 6, 2019

As the quadrennial World Cup opens tomorrow in Paris, the U.S. women’s soccer team arrives as the defending champ, the pretournament favorite, and the team with the biggest chip on its shoulder. The Americans will be battling for a fourth World Cup title and for what they see as basic fairness — around payment and treatment.

On the pitch, the Americans will face the most competitive field in World Cup history, with six or seven other teams, including host France, Germany, and England, looking like they could win the whole thing.

Off the pitch, the U.S. team is fighting to erase what it claims is an enormous inequity between what its players are paid and what the players for the U.S. men’s team are paid. As companies around the globe seek better gender balance in their workforces, equitable compensation can be a big step in that direction. And there are important lessons to learn from the U.S. team’s high-profile battle.

Remarkable accomplishments are no guarantee of fair pay

In March, on International Women’s Day, the 28 women then on the U.S. team filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), claiming “institutionalized gender discrimination.” The suit contends that the bias starts with how much they are paid and extends to where they play, how often they play, and how they travel to matches. (Note: last week they flew first class to Paris for the World Cup, so some of their points have been heard.) The suit is but the most recent and confrontational step in a 20-year battle between the players and the USSF over compensation and recognition that players say don’t reflect the team’s brilliant success.

In addition to their three World Cup titles, the U.S. women have won four Olympic gold medals since the sport was introduced to the Summer Games in 1996. (The men’s team, in contrast, has not medaled in the Olympics since 1904 and has not made it past the World Cup quarterfinals since 1930.) The team has had an embarrassment of marquee stars, including current standouts Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and Alex Morgan, all of whom are nearly as adept on social media as they are on the pitch. Alex alone has 5.8 million fans on Instagram and 3.6 million Twitter followers.

The U.S. team’s actions have sparked similar efforts around the world

Despite the fame and success of the U.S. team, its lawsuit may initially seem to be a domestic spat of little or no concern to anyone outside of the United States.

But as the Americans have become increasingly vocal about their issues with USSF, other national women’s teams have taken note. Some have reached out: Canada’s team contacted its U.S. counterparts for ideas on how to get maternity coverage into its contracts. Other teams have decided, like the U.S. team, that enough is enough: Nigeria’s team held a sit-in, demanding unpaid salaries and bonuses after it won the African championship. Australia’s women went on strike and Ireland’s team threatened to. The Danish team boycotted a World Cup qualifier two years ago and then signed a collective bargaining agreement that ensured increased investment in women’s soccer. In 2017, Norwegian players demanded and then received pay parity with the country’s men’s team.

“We very much believe it is our responsibility,” team co-captain Megan Rapinoe told The New York Times, “not only for our team and for future U.S. players, but for players around the world — and frankly women all around the world — to feel like they have an ally in standing up for themselves, and fighting for what they believe in, and fighting for what they deserve and for what they feel like they have earned.”

Here are four important lessons to draw from the U.S. team’s ongoing efforts to attain equitable pay and treatment:

1. Achieving pay equity is extremely difficult — and it’s even hard to find agreement on what it looks like

Getting pay equity is not easy.

In 2008, Starbucks announced it was going to attack the issue and reach pay equity so that both women and people of color working in its U.S. coffee shops would be paid the same as white men.

It took the Seattle-based firm 10 years to achieve that goal.

With 191,000 U.S. employees, Starbucks had a daunting challenge to attain pay equity and has an ongoing task to maintain it.

But how hard can it be to align the pay of the two dozen or so women who play for the U.S. national team with the pay of the two dozen or so men who represent the red, white, and blue?

Plenty hard.

Each team negotiated its own collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with USSF, and the structures of the two agreements are fundamentally different because the opportunities for men and women outside their national team obligations are also fundamentally different.

The women’s CBA includes salaries for their play on the national team and in the National Women’s Soccer League, which USSF manages and helps finance. The men, who play in high-paying professional leagues around the world, don’t get salaries from USSF. Instead, they receive higher per-game bonuses for their appearances with the national team.

But the women’s legal complaint says that if the two teams played and won 20 friendlies — exhibition games that aren’t part of a tournament —in a year the women would earn $99,000 apiece and the men, on average, $263,320.

The financial picture is further clouded because the revenue each team generates — from games, broadcast fees, sponsorships, etc. — is markedly different. Most years, the men’s team brings in more money. But not every year.

In 2015, for example, after the U.S. women won the World Cup in Canada with a decisive 5-2 triumph over Japan, the team had a nine-game victory tour across the United States that produced about $23 million in game revenue and put USSF about $16 million ahead of its projected revenue for the year.

When Starbucks began its effort to make pay equitable for all of its partners, it began with a compensation analysis — a “statistical multivariate regression analysis” for those keeping score at home. You can’t begin to level the playing field until you have an understanding — and agreement — of what you’re currently paying men and women.

2. Pay transparency can be a stepping stone to pay equity

Carli Lloyd, the sensational forward for the women’s team, was one of five players who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016 that paved the way for the current lawsuit.

When the complaint was filed, Carli wrote an essay explaining her stance. “When I am traveling internationally,” she wrote, “I get $60 a day for expenses. [U.S. men’s captain] Michael Bradley gets $75. Maybe they figure that women are smaller and thus eat less.”

That embarrassing and very public detail — a product of the two separately negotiated CBAs — has been fixed.

As Sara Bowen, Starbuck’s global leader of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility, said about the coffee giant’s efforts at pay parity: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Transparency can be a useful tool for those organizations seeking to pay everyone equitably. The software company Glitch shares the salary ranges of all its roles with candidates and employees. “Transparency isn’t the goal,” says Anil Dash, the company’s CEO. “The goal is paying everyone fairly, and transparency forces us to do that.”

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Related: 4 Reasons It Pays to Share Salary Ranges, According to Companies That Do

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

With the U.S. women’s team, transparency has a second, powerful dimension: All their results and achievements are there for the world — and the courts — to see. And that should move them a step closer to receiving equitable compensation.

3. Every team, no matter how good, needs boosters and supporters

The early betting here is that ally will be 2019’s Word of the Year. In a social justice context, an ally is someone who uses their privilege on behalf of others who don’t have the same privilege. Allies can serve as mentors, sponsors, and champions to help those from underrepresented groups move forward.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has a surprising ally — the U.S. men’s team.

On the day the women announced their lawsuit against USSF, the U.S. National Soccer Team Players Association released a statement that it “fully supports the efforts of the U.S. Women’s National Team Players to achieve equal pay.” The announcement added: “An equal division of revenue attributable to the MNT and WNT programs is our primary pursuit as we engage with the U.S. Soccer Federation in collective bargaining.”

Clearly, the U.S. men don’t see the struggle for pay equity as a zero-sum game.

Fans, too, have embraced the cause, and have begun waving homemade signs at matches that say: “Equal play, equal pay.”

4. The U.S. team is upending conventional wisdom about women being reluctant to negotiate for better compensation

Women in the United States across all industries and professions earn roughly 80 cents for every dollar men are paid. In some countries women are closer to parity and in some they are further away, but the gender pay gap is universal.

When people try to explain the persistence of the gender pay gap, they often point to a reluctance by women to negotiate for more compensation.

But a study published last year in the Harvard Business Review found that while women ask for a raise as often as men, they aren’t as successful: Women received a raise 15% of the time they asked while men got a bump 20% of the time, meaning men were 33% more likely than women to get more money.

Filing a federal lawsuit isn’t exactly the same thing as asking for a raise, but it is a quite public and visible way of saying that you want to be paid fairly and treated better, something we can all get behind.

So over the next month, whether you’re rooting for Les Bleues of France or Les Rouges of Canada, the Matildas of Australia or the Reggae Girlz of Jamaica, consider lending your support to the U.S. team — and women’s teams everywhere — as they fight for paycheck equality.

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.

*Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos (Getty Images)

Topics