The gender pay gap: do women have a sporting chance?

The recent row over tennis players’ pay highlighted a continuing gender bias in sport. Why does it persist? Raina Brands explores.


Tennis is often held up as a shining example of gender equality in sport, now that all four Grand Slam titles award equal prize money, so there was a collective gasp of disbelief when Raymond Moore, tournament director of the Indian Wells Masters, remarked in March 2016 that Women's Tennis Association (WTA) players were “lucky” to be able to “ride on the coattails of the men”. Is the reality on the ground less rosy than we’d like to think?

It would seem so. It is, after all, only nine years since Wimbledon finally conceded on equal pay, embarrassed into it by Venus Williams’ elegantly scathing open letter to the Times. (The US Open made the move much earlier, in 1973, after tennis star Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the event.) On closer examination, female tennis players still earn significantly less than their male peers in almost every other competition. At the 2015 Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio, for example, Roger Federer received US$731,000 for defending his title while Serena Williams received $495,000 for defending hers.

In other sports, too, women’s earnings lag way behind men’s – particularly in those seen traditionally as male. While the male golfer who wins this year’s Open will receive £1.15m; the women’s event winner will get £298,000. The winner of the 2016 men’s World Snooker Championship will receive £300,000, his female equivalent a tiny £1,500. Football star Cristiano Ronaldo earns more than 20 times the salary of the highest-earning female footballer, Brazilian Marta Viera da Silva.

How can this be? Raina Brands, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, says the gender stereotypes women encounter in the workplace are played out even more regressively in sport. “A lot of the old arguments that were used to justify the gender pay gap in the workplace are still accepted in the sports arena. Things like, ‘Women just don’t play at the same elite level as men – there’s more skill to the men’s game.’ That used to be the argument in the workplace, that women just aren’t as competent as men. It’s still a very widely held stereotype.”

Novak Djokovic, ranked world No.1 in men's singles tennis by the Association of Tennis Professionals, piled into the tennis pay furore by suggesting that men should be awarded more prize money because their game attracted more viewers. The problem with this argument, says Dr Brands, is that there is a circular effect: “Men draw bigger crowds, therefore they’re worth more to us, so they get paid more – but then, men’s sports are given more coverage, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don’t cover women’s sports, they don’t become as popular and we can justify paying the competitors less.”

Men are also paid more simply for being men. “Industries where women predominate tend to involve lower-paid and lower-status work than men. But, if you look historically at trends, it’s not that women enter into low-paid, low-status professions. It’s that, the more women populate a profession, the more low-paid and low-status it becomes. We associate men with high status, women with low status. So if we look at groups of men performing something and groups of women performing something, we automatically assign status to that task. We see it in sports and we see it across professions and within organisations.”

Money talks

Why is there such a focus on the prize money? As Billie Jean King, still pushing for equality, says, “It’s not about the money, it’s about the message.” And the message for women in sport is a very mixed one. Dr Brands says: “Men are valued for traits like competence and leadership, women are valued for youth and beauty. Women who fall short of attractiveness standards are very heavily penalised. So the Williams sisters are criticised for being too masculine, too muscular – which is absurd, because they’re crafting their bodies to be champion tennis players. The men’s rippling muscles aren’t mentioned. Women are subjected to beauty penalties in all walks of life but in sport these are talked about as if they were legitimate criticisms.”

The American footballer Lucie Stewart, 29, who plays for the London Warriors, echoed this in a recent interview. “I’d urge women to not be put off by stereotypes. It’s not just for boys. We need to tell women to defy society and forget what people say about needing to look cute.”

There has been notable progress: take football, for example (soccer, if you’re American). Until the 1960s the English Football Association banned women’s football from its grounds, considering the game “quite unsuitable for females”. Now we see the women’s football matches on television occasionally. But I doubt the man (or woman) in the street could name the captain. There is an invisibility factor which, again, has a loose parallel in business. “Men do something and they’re rewarded and recognised; women do something and they’re not. Women have trouble getting the same validation and rewards for their efforts as men.”

Other factors come into play, too. Research into female stereotypes has shown that women tend to either be viewed as competent but cold (the career bitch) or warm but incompetent (the stay-at-home mother). Regrettably, A competent-but-warm stereotype has yet to find a foothold – and sportswomen in particular suffer from not sitting prettily in any category. “Typically, lead athletes are penalised for not being warm enough,” says Dr Brands. What if they have children? “Their perceived competence takes a dive. And if they continue to appear ambitious, we wonder if they are neglecting their parental duties.”

What’s needed is organisational change, because the gender bias in sport exists at a systemic level. “It goes from people organising tournaments, all those practical things like centre court versus not, to broadcasters giving equal coverage, companies giving equal sponsorship. At the school level, it’s about encouraging equal interest in sports. Sport is very wrapped up in masculinity, boys are encouraged to compete aggressively whereas girls are told, it’s good to be fit and healthy but don’t be too competitive. Girls are rewarded more for cooperating.”

“The businesses I’ve worked with that are committed to addressing gender bias are ahead of sport in understanding that change won’t come about just because they desire it to. Aggressive measures have to be taken. These businesses have come to the point where they’re not as concerned about the source of the problem as they are about the solutions: here’s a way we’re going to fix it. Just telling someone to be less stereotyped isn’t effective because we’re not particularly self-aware. What’s needed is intervention at the point where the behaviours translate into biased outcomes, such as the allocation of rewards. And it’s about making sure the standards we use to evaluate men are the same as the standards we use to evaluate women.”

Meanwhile, all credit to the prominent sportswomen who continue to speak out about being underrepresented, undervalued and underpaid. Venus Williams said recently, “A lot of players were not comfortable talking about equal prize money, for whatever reason, or maybe weren’t able to express exactly how they felt. But I was.”

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