The ongoing pay equity case brought by the USA women’s soccer team is about more than gender equality in sport. Renowned attorney at international law firm Winston & Strawn, Jeffrey Kessler, gives his thoughts on the significant ramifications the case could bring to businesses across industries around the world
Gender pay equity case
I recently took on one of the highest-profile cases in the history of gender equality in sports – the USA women’s football team’s gender discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). This case and its hoped-for successful outcome has potential ramifications far beyond professional sports, as it could set an example for gender pay equity in the workplace on a global basis.
The US team successfully defended their status as World Cup champions on 7 July in France, with the pay equity lawsuit proceeding in the background. The case was brought after years of struggle over this issue, as the most successful women’s team in the world continues to make much less than the less successful US men’s team, also employed by the USSF.
The disparity in pay
The unfairness of this discrimination was evident in the fact that the US women’s team has generated more revenues for the USSF than the men’s team since 2015, but still made considerably less in salaries and bonuses. They also have been more popular in the US than the men’s team, due to their phenomenal success. When nearly 27 million Americans tuned into the women’s soccer World Cup final in July 2015, they had no idea how many records were about to be broken.
Apart from being the most-watched soccer game in US history, the US Women’s National Team became the first team in the world to win three separate women’s soccer World Cup titles and participate in a game with the most goals scored of any men’s or women’s World Cup final. In their most recent World Cup victory this year, FIFA estimates that the tournament drew one billion viewers for the first time. But their pay still tells a different story.
Despite being well-loved victors by fans everywhere, the US team receives much less compensation and bonuses than the much less successful men’s team. This is true when they play in friendlies as when they play in the World Cup. So why are the women – when indisputably far more successful in both a competitive sense and an economic sense – getting paid much less?
Passion for equity
I had no hesitation when asked to lead this lawsuit with my partner Cardelle Spangler, which was filed on 8 March this year – on International Women’s Day. The facts of the case for the Women’s National Team are strong – it is the clearest case of gender-based discrimination – the women have the same employer and exactly the same job. All 28 members of the current team sued their employer, the USSF, for gender discrimination. The suit argued that male and female footballers have the same job – they play on the same size field; use the same size ball; have the same duration of matches; and play by the same rules. They also generate more revenues for the USSF – but get paid less.
Impact to business
It is illegal in the US to pay men and women working for the same employer different salaries for similar work on the basis of gender. Despite this, and the many years that have passed since women began their fight for the right to equal pay, the gender pay gap persists across all levels of the workforce. This case illustrates how legal issues in sports, like in other businesses, can affect the most fundamental rights of the individual. I am fortunate to be able to fight for the rule of law and to promote social justice on behalf of these incredible champion women.
I hope not only to achieve pay equity for the team, but that this fight will inspire others to fight for gender equity. This case has captured the attention of the world and I hope the outcome has the potential to change the dialogue about how women are treated not just on the field but in the workplace. It also has the power to expose the steps that society needs to take to ensure that unconscious bias is abolished, so that we can create a world based on gender equality that will make our children and grandchildren proud.