Equal Pay for Equal Play – The Women’s World Cup

Pipsa Sopenpera | Jul 26, 2019

Equal play

The FIFA Women’s World Cup closed a few weeks ago with the USA winning the title in Paris. The tournament will be remembered for two things; for breaking viewership records on women’s football worldwide, and for the adamant demand for gender equality in the sport.

Football's chequered past 

The success of the tournament is astonishing particularly when considering the troubled history of the women’s game. Despite its huge popularity in WWI (drawing crowds of 55,000 at its height!) the English Football Association banned all women’s football shortly after the end of the war. In many countries, including the UK, the sport was deemed “unsuitable for females” and “too much for a woman’s physical frame” resulting in the outlawing of the women’s game by national football associations. This ban lasted 50 years and was only lifted in the 1970s. As a result the development of women’s football was hindered with the first official Women’s World Cup not held until 1991, over 60 years after the men’s.

Since the 70’s women’s football has continued to struggle with controversies that are reflective of global women’s rights issues. The sport has a poor record on women’s participation in decision making and leadership roles. Out of the 37 council members of FIFA only 6 are women, and in the FIFA members associations only 8% of executive roles are held by women. FIFA has also never had a female president in its 115 years of existence.  The sport has also seen cases of sexual harassment of players. The Afghanistan national team was surrounded with allegations of sexual abuse of players by the president of the Afghan football association between 2013 and 2018. This resulted in worried players feeling unsafe and pulling out from the sport all together.

Kicking sexism out of football

But the issue that has been most talked about in the past few months is that of equal pay. Some progress has been made in the past few years in countries such as New Zealand and Norway who now pay their women’s national team the same as their men’s. Yet despite these positive steps the differences in pay between male and female national teams are staggering. A good example of this is the prize money awarded by FIFA to the world cups. Although FIFA doubled the women’s prize money for this year’s cup to $30 million, the men’s prize money for last year’s World Cup was over 10 times higher at $400 million.

It was therefore marvelous to see attention turned to the female players standing up against gender discrimination in the months leading up to this year’s tournament. In February 2019 Argentinian player, Macarena Sánchez, filed a lawsuit against both her club and the Argentinian football association over the status of women’s football as an amateur sport in the country. The status excludes female athletes from enjoying the benefits of their professional male counterparts in both pay and training. A month later the reigning champions, the US Women’s team sued the American Football Association for gender discrimination in pay and working conditions. The first woman to win the Ballon D’Or award, Ada Hegerberg, also made headlines by refusing to play in the Norwegian team. Hegerberg has been boycotting international football since 2017 as a stand against the lack of respect for female players in Norway. The issue of gender discrimination remained in the headlines throughout the tournament and the push for equality culminated in the chanting of the crowds of fans for ‘Equal pay!’ at the final.

Beyond the pitch

These issues are not unique to football and instead reflect the global struggles many women face in realising their human rights in general and economic rights in particular outside of the realm of football. In most countries and most fields, women are not paid equally for the same jobs, nor do women have the same rights and access to work. The estimated global pay gap was 22% in 2018, meaning that on average women earn 78% of men’s wages for the same work. This gap only grows wider in many of the countries in the global south where women also face legal barriers forbidding them from not only working but from owning land or property. The tournament has helped bring issues of women’s economic rights like these into the spotlight once again, raising awareness on this important aspect of women’s rights.

The fact that the tournament broke viewership records worldwide bodes well for women’s sports hopefully this will attract more sponsorships and funding. It is also our responsibility as viewers to help women’s sports grow by watching and promoting sporting events like the World Cup. With the hype and attention generated by the public, organisations like FIFA will have to make sure the funding reaches women, address the issues rampant in the women’s game and promote women’s football on an equal platform in the future. If not, the chants for ‘equal pay’ will only get louder.

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