UCL School of Management

3 March 2020

Why gender equal pay is so hard to achieve in sport

Photo of a woman playing tennis

When we talk of gender inequality in sport, we tend to focus on the gender pay gap. In most sports, women earn significantly less than their male counterparts and that, even though professional athletes, regardless of their gender, put in the same amount of work. This has meant that many female athletes are often having to have full-time jobs on top of being full-time athletes to survive. 

Through her ongoing research on gender equality in sport, Dr Laura Claus, Assistant Professor at The School of Management, argues that this pay disparity will not change until female sports are marketed properly, but that gender inequality in female sport fundamentally stems from the very way in which sport is not designed for women.

Sports were not designed for women

Most sports were never designed for women. They were designed to fit the physical abilities of men.

Ancient Greece introduced formal sport, with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, that included sports such as human and chariot races, wrestling, jumping, disk and javelin throwing, and more.

Now, men (on average) are, by nature, often faster, stronger, and taller.

As already noted by English (1982): Speed, size, and strength seem to be the essence of sports. Women are naturally inferior at “sports” so conceived. But if women had been the historically dominant sex, our concept of sport would no doubt have evolved differently. Competitions emphasizing flexibility, balance, strength, timing, and small size might dominate Sunday afternoon television and offer salaries in six figures. (p.266)

Sport is based on pure meritocracy

Sport is designed to support a system of pure meritocracy – i.e., whoever is stronger, faster, more skilled will be the winner. But related to the first problem, in most sports, if women play against men, they lose (e.g., Serena Williams against No. 150 ATP; women’s soccer team against men’s soccer team). From a pure meritocracy angle, women thus do not deserve the same pay.

There is less of a market for women’s sport

Building on the first two problems, in most sports, there is less of a market for the women’s side of the game (e.g., women’s soccer or women’s tennis). If you look at TV coverage, interest, ticket sales, and other market indicators, most men’s sports will outperform women’s sports. On average and across sport, that’s a statistical fact.

The market argument is the most readily used argument by male players and tournament directors when it comes to not rewarding women gender equal pay.

Now, all of these three problems are reasons used to defend not paying women the same in sport.

How can we get gender equal pay to work

To really get gender equal pay to work, pure meritocracy needs to be revoked and arguments need to come from a sociological/ideological point of view. Furthermore, women should celebrate the female competition as their own version of the sport that is similar yet also different to the men’s.

Women’s tennis is one of the sports that was most successful in ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ for the women’s side. At the four biggest tournaments – the Grand Slams (Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open, US Open) – women and men are rewarded equal prize money since 2007. They did four things to accomplish this significant reduction of the gender pay gap:

  • Connect to the broader sociological discourse (Billie Jean King was a key figure here: in pushing for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to be established, she connected to the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s in her time); taking in arguments from ideological/social point of view and thereby showcasing the societal value of more ‘gender diversity’ in sport.
  • Revoke pure meritocracy by taking away platforms to be directly compared to men; that is, by creating their own Women’s Tennis Association where they could create their own female competitions/tournaments, their own logo, image, and rules of the game. As such, they could design the female competition as deliberately being different from men’s sport. They have different rules on court and off court.
  • Market women’s tennis as being the same sport, but a different category. Women play differently (e.g., by hitting more from the baseline). Rather than trying to adapt more to the men’s game (e.g., hitting serve-and-volleys), they celebrate and market the game as being unique. Women’s tennis thus managed to build their own version of the sport, which alleviated the pressures of repeated direct comparisons to the men’s competition.
  • Establish and support ‘female role models’ / the ‘heroes’ of the sport that become the face of women’s tennis and continue to push for more gender equality. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and many others are very well positioned to maintain the fight for equality.

in summary

The market argument is often used to defend paying women less than men. On average, there simply is less market and public interest for female sport. In other words, they tend to generate much less money. That’s a statistical fact in most sports. The argument that typically follows is: because they generate less money, female athletes should be paid less as well.

But Dr Claus argues that the market follows with the money that athletes are being paid. More salary for athletes makes them more interesting to the public, evident from professional football players. So, one could argue that we need to pay women more first and then the market will equalise.

further research

Dr Laura Claus’s research primarily focuses on social entrepreneurship, social movements, social innovation, impact investing, and new organisational forms for development. Dr Claus has a particular interest to understand how organisations can act as social movement entrepreneurs to facilitate social change. As such, her research is positioned at the intersection of organisation theory and social movement theory. Over the past few years, she has conducted fieldwork on child marriage in Indonesia, an activist organisation in Nigeria, and an impact investing initiative in Tanzania.

Watch this short video to find out more about Dr Claus’s work looking at child marriage in Indonesia.

Research Translation Child Marriage from social.mov on Vimeo.

Last updated Friday, 14 August 2020