When I heard about the U.S. Women’s soccer team’s five major stars filing a federal discrimination complaint against US Soccer seeking equal pay, I was struck by the moment. The potential of it, that is.
The pay equity debate/discussion has been on the fringes of the popular consciousness since the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed in 2009. More recently, Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Lawrence and others have openly criticized pay inequalities in Hollywood. But we haven’t moved beyond discussion of the issue to real action on the part of voters and politicians.
Could this be the policy-triggering event that moves the needle for pay equity based on gender?
Triggering events have the capacity to do that. Think back to the impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring movement and its catalyst toward the establishment of the EPA, or the events of 9/11 and the advent of the Department of Homeland security.
The very idea that these women athletes, who are very public figures with strong domestic name recognition, have brought this case forward opens up a policy window that all pay equity activists can step through. The players themselves seem to recognize their power, describing it as their “duty” to call attention to pay inequity between men and women on a morning talk show. They are using their social capital for political power.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about this discussion is the economic policy debate it sparks. It is really hard to argue with numbers. If it can be proven that the estimated $25 million surplus that US Soccer found in its budget this year is directly related to the Women’s World Cup success and the subsequent victory tour, then the EEOC may very well rule in favor of back pay. This is not an argument about who is better in a certain sport, men or women, or who can beat whom. It is purely a rational economic argument, which will change the public debating points around pay equity.
It is also no surprise that we are seeing the generational gendered effects of Title IX’s influence on women’s sports equity. Whether it be immediate calls for resignation to the organizer of the Indian Wells Tennis tournament after saying that “women should thank the men before them for their tennis success” or this very case, it is many male sportscasters who are standing side by side with their female colleagues, saying this is unacceptable.
Given all of these factors, it’s hard to ignore the perfect timing of this action. Once again, sports as popular culture is framing national political debates –one taking place during a particularly heated election cycle that has a very heavy emphasis on women and their proper roles in all facets of society.
Sports, and women’s sports in particular, are once again serving as a catalyst for social change. It seems only fitting that our most successful women’s sports team is leading the way. Only time will tell if this moment will even the playing field in pay for women.
Leanne Doherty is a political science professor at Simmons College, who studies the intersection between sports, gender, and political power.