Women soccer players demand equity
It was a year ago today that the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team raised the bar for gender equity in sport. What has followed in the last year has been a ripple effect of professional female athletes demanding economic equality both on and off the pitch through protests, persistence, and a history of female resistance on their side.
Before last year, the U.S. women’s national team was being paid 40 percent of what their male counterparts were making. After a multi-year dispute over the wage gap, the female players and the U.S. Soccer Federation, the governing body for both men’s and women’s soccer, reached the first five-year deal of its kind, granting members of the national team their long-deserved compensation — larger bonuses, per diem equal to their male counterparts, greater financial support for players who are pregnant, and financial support for players adopting a child. The deal will run through 2021, covering the team though the 2019 World Cup in France and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Nevertheless, even with a 30 percent pay increase and bonuses that could double some of the women’s salaries to $200,000-$300,000 (depending on their World Cup and Olympic success), pay is still not equal.
Professional soccer still suffers from one of the largest prize money differentials in sports. Even with their most recent World Cup win in 2015 over Japan, breaking records with the largest television audience for any English-speaking soccer broadcast for men or women, the U.S. women’s team received $2 million, nearly a quarter less than the U.S. men’s team (which finished 11th). Despite the women’s three World Cup championships and four Olympic medals, their prize money paled in comparison to the $35 million the German men’s team took home for the 2014 World Cup.
Looking ahead, even with $5.7 billion in annual revenues, FIFA's secretary general stated that they are still 23 World Cups away from women potentially earning the same as men.
FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body for the sport) defines a professional as “a player who has a written contract with a club and is paid more for his footballing activity than the expenses he effectively incurs.” Players outside this definition are considered to be amateurs. By FIFA’s own definition and current financial agreements, many international female players are considered amateurs — with many relying on part-time jobs or endorsement deals.
With different approaches around the world, female soccer players all have the same goal in mind — gender equity and fair treatment in sport for current professional athletes and future generations. They have persistently advocated to diminish the gender wage disparity in the sport, inciting negotiations and protests from the United States, Scotland, and Australia to Denmark, Ireland, Brazil, and Norway. However, much like the second-rate treatment female athletes have long fought to overcome, the strides being taken by female athletes have been grossly underreported — leaving the key players in the battle for gender equity out of the global conversation about females fighting for economic equality.
Last April, shortly following the U.S. women’s team’s announcement, the Republic of Ireland women’s team, having long fought to reach an agreement with the Football Association of Ireland, carried out their threat to not attend an FAI training camp in Dublin.
“Over 60% of the current squad are non-professional, many careers outside the game are on hold and it is becoming financially unrealistic to continue under the current parameters,” said the Ireland team’s collective statement. Their brief strike resulted in a new agreement in which players received match fees of 300 euros (US$370), bonuses of 150 euros for a win and 75 for a draw, gym memberships, and team clothing — to end their experience of having to change in airport toilets following matches to return borrowed tracksuits.
Meanwhile, the Scottish women’s team, after speaking out about financial and commercial inequality in their sport, implemented a media blackout leading up to the Euro 2017 (the European women’s championship tournament). Similar to those of Ireland, many of Scotland’s women are not fully professional, with jobs outside the game to make up for insufficient wages. In June, the team reached its first-ever agreement with the Scottish Football Association.
On the other side of the world, as the W-League — Australia’s top-division women’s soccer league — was nearing its 10th season in September, it hatched a new deal with the Football Federation Australia and the players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia, that guarantees minimum AU$10,000 (US$7,645) playing contracts, more than doubling average wages for female players from AU$7,000 to AU$15,500. The nine clubs are set to increase the salary cap per club from AU$150,000 to AU$350,000 (US$115,000 to US$268,000), while implementing enhanced medical standards and a first-ever formal maternity policy.
About a month after the Australian women secured their deal, Brazil’s top women’s soccer players started a revolt following the firing of Emily Lima, the first woman to lead the country’s national team. Several top players, including four-time World Cup and Olympic veteran Cristiane, left the team, criticizing the national soccer federation for its treatment of women on their way out.
Cristiane posted an open letter from a group of former players criticizing the federation’s treatment of the women’s team, whom the players described as “exhausted from years of disrespect and lack of support,” alongside the hashtag #hearhervoice, inviting others to support the former players in fighting for gender equity. Cristiane also shared a 10-minute video, speaking out about the short time Lima was given with the team in comparison to her male predecessors, demanding an increase to their $78 per-day rate, and giving a tearful demand to former teammates: “Girls, be strong. United. Fight for the things that are not going to change our lives now, but it will change the lives of girls in the future. That dream to be where you are.”
In October, over 6,000 miles away, the Danish women’s team refused to play a World Cup qualifying match against Sweden due to a pay dispute, resulting in a four-year suspended ban and 17,871-euro fine. A four-year collective bargaining agreement came after 12 months of negotiations with the Danish Football Association (DBU), resulting in an increased investment in the women’s team by 2 million Danish kroner (US$331,000) per year.
Around the same time, Norway announced its historic pay deal, becoming the world’s first women’s national team to achieve equal pay. With a raise of 2.5 million Norwegian kroner (US$318,000) for the women’s team in 2018, and 6 million kroner for both national teams, parity was achieved after an added contribution of 550,000 kroner by Norway’s male players, money they had been receiving from commercial activities.
Perhaps it was the success of these long-fought-for agreements and protests taking place worldwide that led to FIFA’s recent announcement in March of a plan to launch a women’s league. The proposed competition would feature 16 of the world’s top national teams, beginning as early as November 2019, with four additional regional leagues to further encourage the development of women’s soccer globally.
And yet, even when announcing FIFA’s plans, FIFA President Gianni Infantino rang an all-too-familiar patronizing tone: “We are also thinking of creating a world women’s football league so that all federations can participate, because we should not lose sight of the fact that 50 percent of the world’s population is female.”
While the announcement of a women’s league is welcome, gender parity in professional sports still has far to go. As women in the WNBA and USA Women’s National Hockey Team similarly fight for fair pay, it’s evident female athletes are not settling for anything less than the goal — fighting for their worth.
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