What we can learn from the U.S. women’s soccer team this Equal Pay Day


U.S. soccer fan and cutout of U.S. national team player, Sydney Leroux, at the Women’s World Cup Final in 2015.

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team recently became the (familiar) faces of the problem of women being paid less than men for the same work.  Last month, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying that the U.S. Soccer Foundation pays the women far less than its male players.  While inequalities in the treatment of female athletes are legion—recall the controversy about the women’s team being forced to play on artificial turf, the recent offensive comments about women’s tennis, and ESPN’s failure to include the women’s basketball bracket in its app— there has been less attention focused on pay disparities.  When we talk about female athletes’ pay, the usual excuse for paying women less is that they generate less revenue.  Yet the women’s soccer team generated $20 million more in revenue than the men, but are paid four times less.  The women’s team has been far more successful than the men’s team, including winning three World Cup championships, but still struggle for fair and equal pay.

Unequal pay is a problem for all women, and has real financial consequences.  Indeed, one study found the gender pay gap begins even with the unequal allowance boys and girls are given for household chores.  Melinda Gates recently pointed out the additional burden on women around the world of unpaid additional household work.  The annual cost of the gender pay gap is $9 trillion dollars — dragging down the entire global economy.

On April 12, 2016, we observe Equal Pay Day (now in its twentieth year).   Equal Pay Day symbolizes how many days into the next year women have to work to make what men earned in the prior year.  Unfortunately, we likely will be observing Equal Pay Day until 2059 — the estimated date we can expect to close the gender pay gap.  Equal Pay Day falls at different points in the calendar for women of color who experience a more egregious wage gap than do white women (as compared to all men and/or white men).  The federal Equal Pay Act has been on the books for more than 50 years.  Yet every year, women are deprived of valuable economic and tangible benefits of their hard work.

Pay disparities exist in all sorts of jobs where women and men perform the same work.  For example, female pilots are paid 16 percent less than male pilots and women who are chefs earn 28.1 percent less than male chefs.  In the tech industry, women are experiencing a significant pay gap with women in Silicon Valley earning on average just 49 cents for a man’s dollar.  The cause of the gender pay gap goes beyond factors like education and choice of profession.  As much as 40 percent of the gender pay gap is unexplained by such measurable factors.  When women enter a male dominated profession, pay begins to decrease.

This year, a stronger equal pay law went into effect in California.  The law should ensure that women who perform substantially similar work to men receive the same pay.  For example, one caller to the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center explained that the job of cleaning up fire- or water-damaged homes is sometimes gender-segregated with women receiving less pay. Given that the work is so similar, it is likely that under the California Fair Pay Act, women cleaners should be paid the same as men.  However, one big problem is that women often do not know how much men in similar jobs are being paid.  The new California law enhances protections for workers who talk about their pay (or ask about the pay of others).  Once a California worker does know about a pay disparity, it will be up to the employer to prove it was based on a factor other than sex and that it explains the entire wage difference.

Ending the gender pay gap calls for action on many fronts.  The Equal Pay Today Campaign (of which LAS-ELC is a member) has called for five specific changes — ending job segregation, stopping wage theft, eliminating retaliation for discussing wages, stopping pay disparities as a result of parenting and caregiving responsibilities, and changing the disparities in pay in promotions for women performing the same job as men.  Another recently proposed piece of legislation in California (CELA-sponsored) would prohibit employers from using a new employee’s prior salary to base salary decisions in order to begin to break the cycle of persistent pay discrimination for women.

As we observe Equal Pay Day and anticipate the U.S. women’s soccer team’s appearance at the summer Olympics in Brazil this summer, we hope to recognize the amazing contributions made by women throughout the world that finally deserve equal recognition through ending the gender pay gap – because it’s 2016!

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

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