Women in sports have seen tremendous advancements in the past few decades. Still, the financial gap between today’s female athletes and their male counterparts—whose incomes have quadrupled—is arguably more significant than it has ever been. The gender wage disparity in many sports results from decades of underinvestment, which sexist views have exacerbated. With Billie Jean’s rise through the ranks of her sport in the 1970s, we saw the early years of the women’s movement. The emerging star realised she could use her influence to demand change. “I wouldn’t be listened to unless I was number one,” she claimed. Owing to her relentless push for equal prize money in men’s and women’s sports, The U.S. Open became the first mainstream tournament to award equal prize money to men and women. Today, women and men are allocated equal prize money in all four Grand Slams. But outside of the Grand Slams and Tennis, the pay gap in sports is visible, outlining a stark difference.
The first factor is that most female athletes have fewer opportunities to negotiate endorsement deals. Even if a male and female athlete receive the same prize money, the top male athletes typically make more due to more significant sponsorship and endorsement arrangements. Endorsement earnings by successful and highly marketable players like Serena Williams and Osaka compare favourably with their male counterparts. They can make ten times as much from endorsements as from prize money. Osaka, for example, made $37.4 million in 2020, with $34 million generated through endorsements, according to Forbes. These figures emphasise the importance of corporate branding in closing the pay gap in sports. Their financial and marketing power can aid in the advancement of cultural transformation.
It has been stated that media coverage of women’s sports is essential for their progress and is crucial in closing the gender wage gap. Broadcasting deals and television exposure influence athletes’ ability to obtain sponsors and endorsements. News reports, television programmes, and social media articles are examples of media coverage. Athletes’ popularity is boosted by media attention, highlighting the commercial character of sports. The economic rationale is that a sport’s commercial value is determined by its viewership, as media producers aim to attract more spectators to profit. This element may impact how female athletes are covered in the media.
Despite a significant increase in female participation in sports, media coverage of female athletes has remained consistently low. Women’s sports have lower technical production quality, receive less overall coverage, and female athletes deal with constant workplace sexism. Women constitute 40 per cent of all sports participants in the United States but receive only 4 per cent of sports media coverage. It has a cascading effect: female athletes lose sponsors, fans, and money due to the lack of airtime. This lack of coverage also results in a dearth of female role models in sports.
While traditional and online media channels fail to cover female athletes, personal social media profiles provide sportswomen with new ways to acquire recognition, promote themselves, build a fan base, and deconstruct established gender stereotypes in sport.
Economic factors also influence the pay gap. When it comes to compensating athletes, economic rewards play a role. For instance, in September 2019, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) said an average of 6,535 people attended each game, a decrease of 3.5 per cent from the previous season and more than 10,000 less than the National Basketball Association (NBA) games. Despite increased exposure on television, attendance and popularity were down. The wages of male and female athletes are affected by their respective marketability. These disparities in remuneration are said to persist until female sports attract equal amounts of viewership and sponsorship, especially in team sports.
Societal constructs fixate on discussing and questioning the abilities of women as athletes when compared with their male counterparts. But this concept remains skewed—simply because it’s similar to comparing apples and oranges—women are competing against other women rather than against men. Being physically suited or not to a sport based on your gender shouldn’t decide the pay you receive for it. These inherent assumptions make it harder for female athletes to push against the devaluation they face.
Professional sports are a vast and rapidly developing sector of the economy—they contribute significantly to economic growth and job creation. As a result, having equal representation in governing bodies and sports foundations is critical to ensuring that the pay gap, inequality, and other issues are addressed comprehensively.
The gender wage gap in sports has a global impact and contributes to a more significant imbalance. In terms of finances, this issue may result in a loss of income. The gender wage disparity in sports may reduce female athletes’ motivation to push themselves and actively participate because they feel unsupported. Other female sports participation, aside from professional players, are impacted.
Similarities across different sports
While various sports differ in terms of how they are governed, whether they are individual or team sports, and how they are compensated, certain commonalities exist amongst them. In most circumstances, female athletes’ salaries or game earnings are lower than their male counterparts. Season to season, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) earnings are vastly different from the National Basketball Association (NBA) earnings, and the top 100 female tennis players cannot compete for the same prize money as their male counterparts.
Furthermore, these organisations have policies that allow for unequal compensation for male and female athletes. In each sport, past gender conventions have contributed to a regression in women’s sports advancement. Women have been denied equal pay for equal work due to a lack of public support, and even worse, societal disapproval. The governing bodies for female athletes were created at least 50 years after the regulating bodies for men. Gender stereotypes accelerate male sportsmen and their teams to earn recognition and sponsorships, while their women counterparts face many hurdles.
Transgender and nonbinary wage gap
Young, transgender athletes continue to be caught in the crossfire of a societal debate regarding gender that causes a schism within the college-sports gender-equity communities, with both sides wanting what they presume is most equitable to them. Many gay and transgender sportspersons in the United States today are paid unequally for the same events. Additionally, they lack the legal protections that other individuals receive, which assist, counteract and correct pay disparities based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Pushing towards better protection, the International Olympic Committee recently issued a framework made up of ten principles centred on the ideals of inclusion, prevention of harm, and non-discrimination, with the goal of welcoming all athletes at all levels of participation. “Sports are for everyone,” said Alex Schmider, GLAAD’s (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) assistant director of transgender representation. “Fairness in sports implies inclusion, belonging, and safety for all who wish to play, including transgender, intersex, and nonbinary athletes.”
What the future looks like
Experts argue that while women are significantly more prominent in sports today than at any other time in history, the rate of change is so gradual that reaching pay parity at the highest level will take years. “We’re making progress, but it’s at a glacial pace,” says Fiona Hathorn, the Managing Director of the Women on Boards advocacy group. The sporting world is still overwhelmingly male-dominated, with stunning discrepancies in several disciplines. An important thing we could do to improve pay gaps in sports would be to support more women’s teams and sportspersons. From watching more games on TV to purchasing a ticket for the next women’s cricket match in town—there’s a lot to follow!
Many recognise the stark differences in the pay gap, while others deny it altogether. Ergo, equal advancement and breaking stereotypes are essential to increasing viewership and narrowing the pay gap. For these barriers to be broken, women’s sports and elite female athletes require equal funding from governing bodies and sponsors. This is imperative to develop players, leagues, and role models for the next generation of female athletes.
Written by Suhani Kabra for MTTN
Edited by Cynthia Maria Dsouza for MTTN
Featured Image via Getty Images
Sources: Forbes, BBC, The Washington Post