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FIFA Women's World Cup spurs equal pay debate

Out-Law Analysis | 02 Jul 2019 | 9:18 am | 4 min. read

The case for equal pay to be applied in talent-related industries has been brought back into sharp focus by the ongoing FIFA Women's World Cup in France.

While the tournament has been a showcase for the best players in the world, attention has been drawn to the disparity in remuneration and treatment of male and female footballers.

Some steps have been taken to readdress the imbalance, but commercial arguments continue to frustrate calls for equality. The issues are not unique to football, however, with all employers required to give serious consideration to 'equal pay for equal work' issues.

What UK law requires

Equal pay for equal work has been a legal requirement imposed upon employers for almost 50 years, by virtue of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and now the Equality Act 2010. This legislation mandates that, where a man and a woman are carrying out work that is ‘like’, ‘rated as equivalent’ or ‘of equal value', for the same employer, they must be remunerated equally.

This requirement extends not only to salary but also to contractual terms afforded to the employees such as bonuses, holiday entitlement, pension payments and other benefits.

1970 was also the year when the 50 year ban on women's football was lifted.

Disparity in some industries

The universal employment opportunities which should commonly be afforded to men and women alike in industries such as the legal sector, accountancy and banking do not always translate into talent-related industries, such as acting or sports.

The highest paid female actresses in Hollywood still earn substantially less than their male counterparts, while only one woman – tennis player Serena Williams – makes it onto the list of the top 100 highest paid athletes. Even she earns nearly $100m less per year than the highest paid male athlete, footballer Lionel Messi.

McMorrow Joe

Joe McMorrow

Senior Associate

Female sports stars need to be given a fair platform to cultivate the biggest possible fan base and draw the commercial interest that will bring.

The spotlight shone by the FIFA Women's World Cup

Women’s football continues to gain momentum and attention on a global scale. The coverage of this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup has been on an unprecedented level for the women's game, and the public's appetite for the sport continues to grow, as record viewing figures attest.

However, despite the huge positives that the tournament has delivered for women's football, there generally remains a significant gap in the pay levels, prize money awards and general treatment of players compared to in the men's game.

The winners of this year's FIFA Women's World Cup stand to gain $4m from a total prize pot of $30m, whereas the winner of the men's World Cup in 2022 will be awarded $38m in prize money from a total pot of $440m.

Players taking action on equal treatment

That disparity has sparked outrage in some quarters, and FIFA, football's world governing body, has been forced to promise to more closely align the prize fund levels across the two games after this summer's tournament following a successful campaign by the Australian women’s team.

Norway's Ada Hegerberg, officially the best female footballer in the world after being awarded the Ballon d’Or prize last year, has taken her own stand on the issue of equal treatment. She has elected to sit out of the World Cup in protest over what she has reportedly described as a lack of respect for female players in Norway.

The Norwegian Football Association (FA) did strike an equal pay agreement across the men's and women's national teams in 2017, however, paving the way for similar agreements to be struck in other countries. For example, the Dutch FA has agreed to reward men and women representing the respective national teams equally from 2023 onwards.

In the US, where the women's team has won four Olympic gold medals and two World Cups and generates more revenue from their matches than the men's team, players have launched equal pay claims against the US Soccer Federation (USSF) in relation to their lower earnings.

Aligning the case for equality with the legal requirements

Many would say that the job of being a professional footballer for both men and women involves similar tasks which require similar skills, is equally demanding on men as it is on women, with both sets of players playing at the peak of their physical abilities and following strict training regimes.

Central to the claim brought by the US women’s national team against the USSF is that the top-level professional women soccer players are doing comparable work to male counterparts, from maintaining competitive skills, physical conditioning, and attending regular training sessions.

In the UK, it may be the case at club level that women footballers are not employed by the same entity as the players in the men's team. However, domestic legislation in the UK also includes a requirement for gender pay gap reporting, which does extend to larger football clubs. Many clubs have used it as an opportunity to restate their commitment to diversity and inclusion and to highlight their plans for improvements.  

Challenging the status quo

The commercial environment in which men and women sports stars operate appears to be a central driver of the justifications asserted for the disparity in remuneration between men and women footballers.

The argument goes that if the women's game is not generating the same commercial revenues as the men's then it cannot sustain the same level of payments to players.

This is a distinction made not on grounds of gender but on the basis of the relative commercial success and value of the teams involved, notable exceptions like the US women's soccer team aside.

The issue is one of perception, and there is much, therefore that can and should be done to improve, amongst other things, the amount and quality of attention given to female sport. Improved sponsorship and revenues will follow.

However, there is also a deeper issue of society's view of women's sport, at both elite and amateur level, to address. There remains a perception that it is inferior to that of men due to biological differences, and the gender labelling of top-class female sport competitions, like the 'Women's World Cup', could suggest it is of less importance to the 'World Cup' that male footballers participate in every four years.

Female sports stars need to be given a fair platform to cultivate the biggest possible fan base and draw the commercial interest that will bring.

There needs to be a paradigm shift so that the women's game receives more publicity, advertisement and coverage to enable it to grow and reach its full potential.

This requires support from large corporations, governing bodies and clubs who employ footballers. The uncapped commercial potential of the women's game is starting to be recognised, but it still feels like a spark is needed. It is probably too optimistic to think that the breadth of coverage, mostly positive, of this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup will provide that spark, but it should at least continue the forward momentum. 

Joe McMorrow is an employment law expert who specialises in sport at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.