When the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated the Netherlands on Sunday to win the World Cup, a chant broke out amongst the crowd in Lyon, France. “Equal pay! Equal pay!” The sound was described as deafening. It was a striking confluence of sports and politics. While pay equity is at the forefront of the conversation around the U.S. team, dig deeper, and you will find a lot more at stake.
Pay is an essential issue in its own right. Pay is also a proxy for respect, and respect is wrapped up in questions of perception and status. Respect is about what we value and why.
Media coverage of the U.S. women’s team has focused not just on the equal pay issue, but also on how the women carry themselves on a world stage: on their confidence, their celebrations, their charisma. The gender politics of how the women are regarded and how much they are paid are connected. Furthermore, it is an indication of why gender inequality continues to persist in the business world.
Perceptions of value
Some say that the disparity in how the U.S. men’s and women’s soccer teams are compensated is a strictly economic question dictated by revenue. (It should be pointed out that the pay gap we see in other professions has for years, and falsely, been justified for economic reasons.) Comparing revenue and compensation in the men’s and women’s game is complicated—international prize money for the World Cup is greater on the men’s side, but the U.S. Soccer Federation has seen the women generate higher revenue in recent years.
The more significant point is that the revenue argument ignores the fact that we attach a monetary value to things for a variety of reasons, including expected future value. Men’s Major League Soccer lost money for its first decade, but its backers were okay with that because they judged it to be a worthy investment. In that vein, U.S. star Megan Rapinoe has argued that we need to look at how the women’s game is valued as an investment. What resources does U.S. soccer put into its branding and marketing?
We see this same pattern in a wide range of occupations. Those dismissing the pay gap contend that it is driven by the choices women make—but a great deal of research shows this is a chicken-and-egg argument. For example, while computer programming was once a very mixed profession, salaries soared as it became a more male-dominated field. Conversely, as more women became park rangers, pay went down. Closing the pay gap is not just about equity between the genders. It is also about the status and value we attach to different kinds of work.
Substance and style
The most highly compensated male athletes almost without exception strut the stage of their sports with brash confidence. Their swagger is sometimes questioned, but rarely in a way that detracts from their market value. If anything, their outsized confidence contributes to a larger-than-life image and enhances their brand. When women display similar swagger, they attract close and at times, harsh scrutiny. In the World Cup, the U.S. women were judged by many to be excessive in their celebrations and confidence.
The disparities in how we allow women to perform on a big stage play a role in the differences in how we compensate them for doing so. Last year, not a single woman appeared on Forbes’ list of the 100 highest-earning athletes in the world. A regular on the list, but missing last year as she took a break to have a child, is Serena Williams—whom herself has drawn sharp criticism for her bold style.
We see the same disparity in the corporate realm. Only two women—Safra Catz of Oracle and Laura Alber of Williams-Sonoma—crack the top 50 highest-paid CEOs. As the Harvard Business Review has noted, the corporate world overvalues confidence and charisma as valuable leadership traits in men, even as research increasingly indicates women are in some respects, better equipped to lead effectively.
What we should prize (and reward) is authenticity in both women and men. When Megan Rapinoe struck her “gladiator pose” after scoring a goal, she was knowingly pushing back against gender stereotypes. Alex Morgan displayed no less confidence in sipping an imaginary cup of tea after scoring against England, but in a style entirely her own.
We have to create room for women to be as bold and brash as they like as long as they get the job done—yet not require them to mimic the ways of men in order to climb the ladder of success. The freedom to be authentic and the battle for equal pay are part of the same fight. When the substance and style of performance and compensation are dislodged from gender, we all win.