Benefits and Compensation

Equal Pay and Women’s Soccer


Well, here we go again: another compensation issue to dissect on the topic of “equal pay for equal work” or the “gender pay gap”—choose your preferred label. In this case, they are closely intertwined. This case specifically involves the U.S. women’s soccer team and the complaint it submitted to the U.S. Soccer Federation, claiming the members of the women’s team are unfairly paid relative to the U.S. men’s team.

equal pay USWNT

Let’s establish some facts first. The women are clearly underpaid relative to the men’s team, earning approximately 50% of what the men’s team members are paid. With respect to the revenue the teams generate, women’s soccer produces about $20 million more than the men’s team, which, according to some, operates at a loss of about $2 million.

This is clearly an “equal pay” issue. However, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 states that men and women “must be paid the same” if they hold the “same job.” Women or men are paid more than each other when they hold the same job if the reason is attributable to one or more of four “exceptions” to the equal pay requirement, such as being paid more for “meritorious performance.” Thus, a man may be paid more than a female who holds the same job if he performs the tasks better than the female.

So, it could be said that the women and men “have the same job” (i.e., they play soccer for their country). However, they are not on the same team. Given the nature of competitive worldwide soccer, it is quite logical as to why the women aren’t on an integrated team. It isn’t the nature of the competition. Until the rules change one day, women cannot make the argument that they should be allowed to play on the men’s team.

So, what about legal precedent? There are clear cases in academia, for example, that support the idea that a university can pay male professors who teach business courses more than female professors who teach philosophy. The decisions are based on the notion of the “market” and “what it will bear” with respect to the pay levels of male and female professors. Put another way, business professors who are male are paid more than female professors in another discipline because that is what is necessary to attract the desired talent. Also, more students take business courses than philosophy courses, thus generating more revenue for the university.

But the U.S. women’s soccer team takes in more revenue than the men. Shouldn’t this be a similar factor to that of the teachers? That’s on the plus side. However, women chose to work for the stipulated pay level when they joined the U.S. soccer team, suggesting that the pay level was seen as adequate for the role until they learned what the men were being paid. If one wants to play for the U.S. national team, one must play for the designated pay level or not play at all.

In the end, this issue comes down to one of fundamental fairness, not necessarily legal interpretation. This is more of a “gender pay gap” issue than one of “equal pay for equal work.” The women’s team earns a great financial return for its effort. If one believes the gender pay gap is caused by organizations paying women less simply because they can, legally or illegally, then here is a case that can be resolved by paying the members of the women’s team more for their success, their personal sacrifice, and the national pride they generate.

A better solution would be reframing the Equal Pay Act to include a clause that extends its provisions to roles that are only separated by gender, like the U.S. soccer teams. The athletes hold the same role and perform for the same organization and country. The only differentiator is gender.

However, reframing laws takes too much time, so until then, we must grapple with these issues in other, perhaps less satisfying ways.

David Wudyka is the Managing Principal and Founder of Westminster Associates. With more than 30 years of professional HR experience, Wudyka manages and oversees all company operations at Westminster Associates, including the design, development, and implementation of all client HR programs. He was 1 of the first 200 people in the United States to be certified in the field of compensation by the former American Compensation Association, and in addition to his role at Westminster Associates, he also teaches the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Certification Program and is on the adjunct faculty at UMass Boston.