The U.S. women's national team competes against Brazil in a SheBelieves Cup soccer match on March 5.Mike Carlson / AP

Since 1963, “equal pay for equal work” has been the law of the land when it comes to compensating men and women in the U.S.

If only it were so simple.

According to a lawsuit filed on March 8 by the U.S. women’s national soccer team, these female athletes are being paid less than the men’s team, in some cases earning just 38 percent of pay per game. This, despite the fact that in recent years the women’s team has generated more profits and revenue for the U.S. Soccer Federation, earned larger viewing audiences, and played more games than the men’s team. The women have also won three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. Their lawsuit against the USSF comes just three months before they defend their World Cup title at the 2019 tournament in France.

Many won’t find these claims surprising. Women athletes are notoriously underpaid when compared with their male counterparts, and the U.S. women’s national soccer team represents just one sport where this dynamic plays out. In the WNBA, player salaries start at $50,000, while median salaries are $71,635. Meanwhile, NBA players earn a minimum salary of $582,180. Out in the wider U.S. labor market, women’s median weekly earnings in 2018 were 81.1 cents for every dollar earned by a man. (The gap is bigger for women of color: Compared with white men’s median weekly earnings in 2018, Hispanic women earned just 61.6 percent and black women earned just 65.3 percent.) And it’s getting worse. According to data analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the gender wage gap actually widened last year. And some researchers believe the wage gap could be much bigger than what’s reported now.

Experts tend to point to a familiar set of reasons to explain wage gaps. Women lose out on hours in a day and years of experience because of higher demands to care for children or relatives. Then there’s the fact that becoming a father actually increases earnings in most cases, while becoming a mother does the opposite. When it comes to sports, where laborers are almost always divided by gender, male athletes routinely sign contracts for millions of dollars, while their female counterparts often need to ask for a living wage.

According to the lawsuit, from 2013 through 2016, women’s national-team players could earn a maximum of $4,950 per “friendly,” or non-tournament, game that they won, while men’s national-team players earned an average of $13,166 for the same thing. And though a new collective-bargaining agreement was reached in 2017 that reportedly bumped up the women’s salaries (the exact numbers are not public), the pay from the USSF to its male and female athletes is still not equal.

The lawsuit also alleges that the USSF has allocated fewer resources to promoting women’s games than men’s games, including not announcing games early enough to allow for larger crowds. It says that Kathy Carter, the former president of Soccer United Marketing, the company USSF used for years to market the teams, acknowledged that the women’s team has been “under-marketed” and “taken … for granted,” and that Carter “agreed that there was a need for the USSF to invest equally in the [women’s] and [men’s teams].”

On March 15, a week after the lawsuit was filed, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, Carlos Cordeiro, released a public letter. It did not address any specific claims from the suit, but states: “[We] agreed to a fair and equitable collective bargaining agreement with the Women’s National Team, which included a contract structure that the players specifically requested to provide them with a guaranteed salary and benefits.”

Rachel Allison, a sociology professor at Mississippi State University and the author of Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer, has seen the perception that women athletes simply don’t work as hard as men athletes play out during her extensive research into women’s professional soccer leagues. “You would think that kind of narrative might not come up from the people invested in the league’s success, but I found it to be very widespread, even among owners, managers, and coaches,” she says.

While the women of the U.S. national soccer team undoubtedly hold a privileged place within the fight for wage equality—they are not the women in the trenches of minimum-wage-level work—their position as athletes, workers in a very physical and male-dominated profession, makes their experience similar to the type of discrimination that women in other physical, male-dominated professions frequently face. “Labor in sport is performed through the body,” Allison says. “The dominant ideas about gender and the body seem to apply in sport more than in other social spheres. We wouldn’t see similar arguments in other workplace settings. For instance, workers who sit at a computer all day wouldn’t invoke an argument about supposed biological distinctiveness to invoke why women don’t get paid the same as men.”

This misconception about women’s physical work has historical parallels. Take, for example, World War II, when women were filling jobs on factory floors in record numbers to replace the men who were off at war. These women, previously told that they couldn’t possibly do “men’s work,” were, in fact, doing it. But they were usually paid much less than the men they were replacing. Concerns were constantly raised that women were simply not working as hard, or doing the work as well as men. Yet according to a government publication from 1942 discussing women’s role at the shipyards, “The yards were practically unanimous in reporting that on the whole the work done by women was considered equal to that of men … Foremen … often found that women were quicker to learn than the men available ... [and] exhibited a greater interest than did the men and were more anxious to know ‘why’ and ‘how.’”

Even after the Equal Pay Act in 1963 that legally ended pay discrimination by gender, the distinction in physical labor continues to play out in other professions. Ariane Hegewisch, who researches employment and wages at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, says that historically, companies in the U.S. have looked for wiggle room around the idea of equal pay for equal work by portraying work done by women as simply not comparable to work done by men, even when it is. A company might think of what a garbageman does, for instance, as “clearly really hard, dirty, physical work,” Hegewisch says. But when it comes to a health-care aide providing eldercare? “It simply doesn’t count as physical, unpleasant work, even though it requires changing dirty beds, lifting patients … and is still very injury-prone, physically taxing work.”

As their lawsuit states, top-level professional women soccer players are doing comparable work. It stipulates that women players are required to “maintain competitive soccer skills, physical conditioning, and overall health by undergoing rigorous training routines (endurance running, weight training, etc.) and by adhering to certain nutrition, physical therapy and other regimens. They must attend training camps and practices, participate in skills drills and play scrimmages and other practice events.” In sum, their work as athletes looks identical to that of any elite, professional athletic team, regardless of gender.

The U.S. women’s national team is headed to France in June to compete in the World Cup. The men’s team, which has won just one knockout-round game in a World Cup this generation, failed to qualify for last year’s tournament. If the women win it all again, the federation will have a difficult time justifying the pay disparity, and perhaps the women’s compensation and working conditions will finally reflect the amount of work they put into the game.

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