Sport’s gender pay gap: why are women still paid less than men?

Steph Houghton, the best-paid female English player, earns around £65,000 a year, while Wayne Rooney receives £300,000 a week.

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In March, male and female cricket teams from across the world descended upon India, where the men’s and women’s World Twenty20 competitions were played simultaneously. The International Cricket Council funded all the men’s teams to fly business class, but only paid for the women’s teams to fly economy class. 

The integration of the men’s and women’s tournaments only highlighted how differently competitors were treated. The total prize money for the men’s event was $5.6m – 16 times the $400,000 for the women’s tournament. 

The roots of this discrepancy lie in the birth of modern sport, 150 years ago. Victorian society viewed sport as “inseparable from the philosophy of Muscular Christianity, which defined itself against femininity and ‘softness’,” says Tony Collins, the author of Sport in Capitalist Society. It did not think much of the notion of women playing.

Nor did Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic Games, in 1896. He described women’s sport as “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate” and advocated that the games be reserved for women, though a few females were allowed to compete from 1900. In 1921, the Football Association in England deemed the sport “quite unsuitable for females” and banned its clubs from loaning pitches to women. 

Women’s treatment in sport has always been a manifestation of wider gender inequality and, as sports evolved and professionalised, became self-perpetuating. The huge funding disparity between male and female sport means that women have had fewer opportunities to play sport, have suffered from inadequate coaching and facilities compared with those enjoyed by men, and have been paid meagre sums, even for playing international sport. This has damaged the quality of sport – and therefore the attractiveness of the product to fans and broadcasters – in two ways. Those that have played have often not been professional, so had less chance to hone their skills; and the lack of financial rewards mean that many leading players have retired prematurely.

Women’s sport has been shaped by administration being almost exclusively a male preserve. This explains why, from 1928 to 1960, women were not allowed to compete in races of more than 200 metres, because it was felt that running for longer made them too tired. It took until 1984 for women to make up one-fifth of competing athletes in the Olympics.

Other bodies have been no more welcoming to female athletes. “Let's get women to play in different and more feminine garb than the men,” Sepp Blatter, who was president of FIFA for 17 years, said in 2004. He wanted women to play “in tighter shorts,” because “beautiful women play football nowadays, excuse me for saying so”. Only in 1998 did the Marylebone Cricket Club, the custodians at Lord’s, lift its ban on female members. Others institutions continue to resist: two months ago, the Muirfield Golf Club, one of Scotland’s most celebrated courses, recently voted to uphold its ban on women members. 

Some tentative progress in gender equality is now being made off the pitch: 30 per cent of those sitting on the boards of sports organisations funded by Sport England are now women, up from 21 per cent in 2009. Advances have been slower around the world: almost half of National Olympic Committees surveyed by the IOC have fewer than 20 per cent of women on their Executive Boards, including ten nations who had no women at all. 

On the field, equal prize money is becoming more common. The World Athletics Championships equalised prize money in 1995 and all grand slam tennis tournament have paid male and female champions equally since Wimbledon begun doing so in 2007. Globally, 25 out of 35 major sports pay equal prize money to men and women, found a BBC survey in 2014. Olympians are still not paid prize money by the Games, although most countries offer their medal winners prize money, and sums are equal for men and women. 

Yet the most lucrative sports remain far away from equalising renumeration. Even in sports with equal prize money for marquee competitions, there are often huge discrepancies lower down. In tennis, Novak Djokovic, the men’s number one, earned twice as much as Serena Williams, the women’s number one, last year – although both won three of the four grand slams, the less prestigious men’s tournaments pay far more than the women’s events. In football the differences are even starker: there was £22m in prize money for the last men’s football World Cup, but only £630,000 for the women’s tournament. 

The differences are far greater in club competitions, in which women’s teams have struggled to gain a following. The total attendance for the last season of the Women’s Super League was 57,000; for the Premier League, it was 13 million. The stark discrepancy explains why Steph Houghton, the best-paid female English player, earns around £65,000 a year, while Wayne Rooney receives £300,000 a week. Similar forces are at work in professional basketball in the US: last season, the maximum salary for a female player was $109,500; for men’s players, the minimum salary was $525,093, and the maximum $16.407m. 

The greatest cause for optimism is in the rising quality of female sport: the gradual increase in spending on women’s sports is now being reflected in a product that more spectators want to watch. When England Women played Germany at Wembley in November 2014, the match was a 55,000 sell-out. Dramatic improvements in the standard of women’s cricket led to the England team turning professional in 2014. And while there remains a dearth of females who coach men, Andy Murray’s appointment of Amélie Mauresmo as his coach two years ago was a seminal moment: never before had a professional men’s tennis player appointed a woman as coach. "Have I become a feminist?" Murray later wrote. “Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man, then yes, I suppose I have.”

Yet, despite such heartening developments, some hard-won gains are at risk. Greater gender equality in the funding of US sports has actually led to a huge decrease in the number of female coaches. As men have increasingly sought jobs coaching women, the number of female coaches of intercollegiate women’s teams has dropped from 90 to 40 per cent since 1972, when Congress passed a law mandating gender equity in every educational program that received federal funding.

Tennis is perceived to have acted more decisively on gender equality than any other major sport, yet recent months have shown the differences in how male and female tennis players are perceived. Last year, a commentator asked the Canadian player Eugenie Bouchard to “give us a twirl” after her victory in an Australian Open match. This March, Ray Moore, the chief executive of the Indian Wells tournament, said that women should “get down on their knees” and thank Roger Federer for making tennis so popular. That prompted a debate about equal pay in tennis, whereby Djokovic said that male tennis players should be paid more than female ones, on the grounds that they generate more cash for the sport and, in grand slams, play over five sets rather than three. 

But the logic of pay being determined by market forces only seems to work one way. Even when women raise more money than men, they can also be paid less. In the US, five female football players recently filed a complaint against US Soccer over wage discrimination. They are ranked number one in the world, 30 places above the men, and generated nearly $20m more revenue last year – but are still paid significantly less. 

In many ways the Olympic Games in Rio represent a significant staging post in the rise of female sport: 47.7 per cent of competing athletes are women, a record for a summer Games. Yet true pay equality in sport is still far away. “Until there is a fundamental shift towards gender equality across society,” Collins says, “women in sport will always be treated as under-paid second-class citizens.”

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.