Americans love cheering on our impressive, gutsy U.S. Women’s Soccer team, who recently became World Cup champions for the third time. That’s why it’s tempting to support the players who have just filed a lawsuit against their employer, alleging wage discrimination. But their lawsuit is misguided, because they ignore the real, legitimate reasons why women soccer players are paid differently than men.
Americans believe men and women should be paid fairly for their contributions in the workplace, no matter what their profession. We don’t want men and women doing the same job under the same market conditions to be paid differently.
But that’s not what’s happening with soccer.
While the athletes are all playing the same game, men’s soccer and women’s soccer (as is the case with many sports) are best understood as two distinct industries.
Tickets to men’s soccer matches and women’s soccer matches are not considered the same by consumers, meaning they are not what economists would call “substitute goods.” More people want to watch men’s soccer, which is why the men’s team typically brings in double the revenue and their games bring in “a multiple” of TV ratings when compared to the women, according to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
None of this is to say that female athletes don’t work every bit as hard as male athletes, nor does it diminish their success. The U.S. Women’s Soccer team has experienced incredible success — and far more than the men — on the playing field. Yet for that to impact compensation, this success has to translate into revenue, which can then justify higher salaries.
This may ultimately come to pass. The five plaintiffs – including stars Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd – in this lawsuit point out that in 2015, the U.S. Women’s Team brought in $20 million more in revenue than the men. This was atypical and based at least in part on 2015 being a year in which they won the World Cup. Future projections of higher revenues for the women’s team may or may not be realized.
Certainly, the women’s team has every right to negotiate and collectively bargain for greater pay based on this dramatic increase in productivity and revenue generation.
That’s ultimately what should determine female soccer players’ pay, not how much male players are earning. In fact, if women start to generate the bulk of revenues in soccer, then women’s pay should not just be equal to, but actually greater than, the men’s pay.
Some feminists point to sports as an example of women doing "the same job" as men but receiving lower pay. But in the world of sports, men and women are not easily interchangeable. Women and men play on separate teams due to physical differences between the sexes.
Similarly, differences between men and women, as demonstrated by their choices in the labor force, drive the wage gap throughout our economy. It would be wrong to suggest that the wage-gap statistic (showing women on average earn about 80 percent of what men earn) is evidence of rampant discrimination. This statistic is not an apples-to-apples comparison; women are more likely than men to seek out professions and jobs that prioritize factors other than pay, such as more flexibility, fewer hours, and more time off, which explains most of the differences in earnings.
Women also value benefits like health insurance and maternity leave, and they like jobs that provide economic security and stability. We cannot discount benefits and focus on dollars alone when we are comparing compensation.
In fact, the counsel for the U.S. Soccer Federation pointed out that one reason women players are not paid the same as men is the structure of their compensation: The women’s team negotiated for salary-based pay with a full plate of benefits, while the men’s team uses bonus-based pay and receives less generous benefits.
Our justice system will weigh facts like these in the women soccer players’ case, as they do in other wage discrimination cases. While this particular case is likely to lose on the merits, its filing should serve as an encouraging reminder that, if women feel they’ve been shortchanged, they can file a lawsuit and point to legal protections — like the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act — that are in place for them.
While Americans of all stripes should support the concept of fairness, we must also recognize that there are sometimes legitimate reasons why men and women are paid differently. Unless we are truly comparing the same job, same industry, and same market conditions, then we aren’t looking at a fair comparison. We should continue to cheer on the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, but their wage discrimination lawsuit sadly misses the goal.
Hadley Heath Manning is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.