Equal pay crucial to improving visibility of women in sport

Out-Law Analysis | 15 Sep 2021 | 1:12 pm | 4 min. read

The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) has announced a deal has been struck to pay members of the Irish senior men’s and women’s teams equally.

Under the deal, men and women on international duty will receive equal match fees. The senior men have agreed to reduced fees, and the FAI will match their contribution to increase the fees paid to women.

The decision is a positive and welcome step forward in international football, and will hopefully be followed by other nations.

The move positions women’s football as equal to the men’s game both in the eyes of the FAI and internationally, and will help shape the narrative around equality within the sport. Paying women less feeds into the narrative that women’s football is ‘lesser’ than the men’s game. There is then a negative multiplier effect wherein because the public perception becomes that the women’s game is ‘lesser’, interest in the women’s game as well as investment, marketing, branding and opportunities within the women’s game are lower.

Decisions like the FAI’s in this instance could serve to level the market: pay women equally first and then the market will move closer towards equalisation as a result.

The Irish men’s team should also be commended for their proactive stance and willingness to sacrifice to achieve gender parity – another factor that could impact opinions relating to equality in sport, at all levels.

A wider issue

The lack of parity between female and male athletes in pay, treatment and coverage has been an issue for a long time, not only in Irish football but in all sports.

Women make up 40% of those taking part in sport. However, as of 2020, they only receive 4% of the total sports media coverage in print and broadcast devoted to them – despite fluctuations during key events like the Olympic Games or World Cup.

Rubymarie Rice

Solicitor, Pinsent Masons

Decisions like the FAI’s in this instance could serve to level the market: pay women equally first and then the market will move closer towards equalisation as a result

Women have been fighting for better treatment for some time.

The US women’s football squad took a stand against “institutionalised gender discrimination” ahead of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.

Some 28 members of the national squad announced they were suing US Soccer, seeking equitable pay and treatment, including damages for back pay. The campaign received widespread support, with fans chanting “equal pay” after the US ultimately won the World Cup.

Similarly, the US women’s national ice hockey team threatened to boycott the 2017 world championships if a settlement was not made with USA Hockey for equal treatment to the men’s team. At the time it was reported that the women’s players were barely making living wages and were left out of pre-Olympic marketing plans despite their success on the ice.

The federation conceded to many of the players’ demands. The team went on to win gold at the world championships, then captured their first Olympic gold in 20 years by defeating Team Canada at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games.

Success stories

Some sports have shown the power of equal treatment. Women’s tennis is one of the sports that was most successful in breaking the glass ceiling.

Since 2007, the female winners of the four grand slams – the Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open and US Open – have received the same prize money as men.

When it comes to women’s sport, tennis is by far the most lucrative sport for female athletes. The worldwide admiration and support for the female tennis athletes has followed this parity in pay, including recognition and attendance at matches. The recent success of and global admiration for Emma Radacanu and her success in the US Open illustrates this point.

Gender pay gap reporting

Equal pay for equal work has been a legal requirement imposed upon UK employers for almost 50 years, by virtue of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and now the Equality Act 2010. Since 6 April 2017 employers in Great Britain with more than 250 staff have been required by law to publish their gender pay and bonus gaps, together with the proportion of men and women in each quartile of the organisation’s pay structure.

This domestic legislation does extend to larger football clubs, and unsurprisingly the sports industry has some of the biggest gender pay gaps in the world of work.

The Irish Gender Pay Gap Information Act 2021 was implemented on 13 July 2021 and will introduce a series of new reporting requirements that will initially impact employers with more than 250 employees, much like the position in the UK.

Work still to be done

There is still a long way to go before parity in remuneration for male and female footballers, and indeed men and women in most sports.

However, sports have long mirrored society, and the gender pay gap has persisted in the sporting world just as it has in other professional working realms. The sporting industry is making steps towards an equal future. However, there is still a way to go.

According to a BBC survey, up to 83% of sports now offer the same amount of prize money for men and women. But in the 17% that don’t, the difference runs into the millions.

In the Forbes 2020 top 50 highest paid athletes, only one woman appears – tennis star Naomi Osaka, at number 29.

Only half of sports’ governing bodies currently meet the UK government target to have women making up one quarter of the people sitting around the boardroom table. Women are also still underrepresented in coaching roles.

The differential will continue to exist to a degree at professional club level given the varying revenues generated by the different clubs. Clearly those clubs that generate more revenue will be able to pay their players higher salaries, and men’s clubs are still generating higher revenue than women’s.

However, this is something that could be addressed with increased investment, publicity and televising of women’s football as well as proactive steps being taken by federations and governing bodies with the support and co-operation of men’s teams. The support of governing bodies is integral in increasing the marketability of women’s sport and illustrating the uncapped commercial potential of the women’s game, particularly as they have greater influence and revenue than individual clubs.

Irish men’s captain Seamus Coleman said he hoped the FAI decision would act “as an inspiration to many other nations to follow suit”, but this aspiration needs to spread beyond football and across the world of sport for permanent change to take effect.

Co-written by Rubymarie Rice of Pinsent Masons