Comment: Women’s football could kick gender pay gap into touch

The US womens team has launched equal pay claims against the US Soccer Federation, says McMorrow. Picture: ContributedThe US womens team has launched equal pay claims against the US Soccer Federation, says McMorrow. Picture: Contributed
The US womens team has launched equal pay claims against the US Soccer Federation, says McMorrow. Picture: Contributed
The case for equal pay to be applied in talent-related industries has been brought back into sharp focus by the Fifa Women’s World Cup in France which saw the United States crowned champions for the fourth time.

While the tournament has been a showcase for the best players in the world, attention has been drawn to the disparity in remuneration and treatment of male and female footballers. Some steps have been taken to redress the imbalance, but commercial arguments continue to frustrate calls for equality. The issues are not unique to football, however, with all employers required to give serious consideration to equal pay for equal work issues.

Equal pay for equal work has been a legal requirement imposed upon UK employers for almost 50 years, by the Equal Pay Act 1970 and now the Equality Act 2010. This legislation mandates that, where a man and a woman carry out work that is “like”, “rated as equivalent” or “of equal value” for the same employer, they must be remunerated equally. This requirement extends to contractual terms afforded to the employees such as bonuses, holiday entitlement, pension payments and other benefits.

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This does not always translate into talent-related industries, such sports. Only one woman – tennis player Serena Williams – makes it onto the list of the top 100 highest paid athletes. Even she earns nearly $100m less per year than the highest paid male athlete, footballer Lionel Messi.

Despite the huge positives that the World Cup has delivered for women’s football, there remains a significant gap in the pay levels, prize money awards and general treatment of players compared to in the men’s game. The winning US team stood to gain $4m from a total prize pot of $30m, whereas the winner of the men’s World Cup in 2022 will be awarded $38m in prize money from a pot of $440m. Fifa, football’s world governing body, has been forced to promise to more closely align the prize fund levels across the two games.

The US women’s team, which generates more match revenue than the men’s team, has launched equal pay claims against the US Soccer Federation (USSF). Many would say that the job of being a professional footballer for men and women involves similar tasks which require similar skills and is equally demanding, with both sets of players at the peak of their physical abilities and following strict training regimes. Central to the US women’s national team claim against the USSF is that the top-level professional women players are doing comparable work to male counterparts.

In the UK, it may be the case at club level that women footballers are not employed by the same entity as the players in the men’s team. However, domestic legislation also includes a requirement for gender pay gap reporting, which extends to larger football clubs. Many clubs have used it as an opportunity to restate their commitment to diversity and inclusion and to highlight plans for improvement.

The commercial environment appears to be a central driver of the justifications for the pay disparity. The argument is that if the women’s game is not generating the same commercial revenues as the men’s, it cannot sustain the same level of payments to players.

However, there is a deeper issue of society’s view of women’s sport, a perception that it is inferior to that of men due to biological differences. There needs to be a paradigm shift so that the women’s game receives more publicity, advertisement and coverage to enable it to grow and reach its full potential.

This requires support from large corporations, governing bodies and clubs who employ footballers. The uncapped commercial potential of the women’s game is starting to be recognised and while it is probably optimistic to think that the breadth of coverage of this summer’s Fifa Women’s World Cup will provide the spark needed, it should at least continue the forward momentum.

- Joe McMorrow, employment law expert at Pinsent Masons.