THE GENDER PAY CHASM IN SPORT
By Jamie Leno Zimron / LPGA Pro, 6th Dan Aikido
Somatic Psychologist, Corporate Speaker, Peak Performance Trainer
President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Yet right now in 2021, women still make roughly 75-80% of men’s wages. That percentage is far lower for non-white and immigrant women, just as the COVID pandemic is hitting women’s participation and compensation in the workplace particularly hard. In the sports world, pay discrimination continues to be flat-out shocking.
In 2020, the average Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) salary was $100,658, compared to $7.7 million average for NBA players / $820k for rookies. That’s a mere 1.3% of men’s pay, and one-eighth of rookies’ pay! The top WNBA players earned $215k, infinitesimal compared to Stephen Curry’s $43 million. And these 2020 numbers are up, due to hard-won raises that are inching towards gender pay equity more slowly than a turtle. The number of women coaches dropped from 90% in 1972, before Title IX, to 47% today. In the words of former WNBA President Lisa Borders:
“Let’s be clear, there is a lot of sexism that still goes on. People do not believe that women can be superb professional athletes. That frankly is an ignorant perspective.”
The LPGA, now a worldwide beacon of professional women’s sports, is far from on par with the men’s game. Female pros stand to earn scarcely 10-15% as their male counterparts, although incurring the same work expenses in travel, hotels, food, equipment, caddies, etc. During March 2021 - Women’s History Month - an LPGA Tour victor won $225 thousand, while the PGA winner’s check was $1.7 million. Even at the general 75% median of men’s pay, she’d have taken home $1,275,000. The next week’s PGA 1st place payout was a whopping $2.7 million, dwarfing the $1.8 million total purse of that week’s LPGA event.
I remember watching Annika Sorenstam on late-night TV in the early 2000s, when she and Tiger Woods ruled golf and her record of victories rivaled his. The two played practice rounds together and when asked if they made friendly bets, Annika pointedly replied: "He makes 7 times more than I do."
The LPGA struggled mightily to survive the 2007 financial crash. To its great credit, it has rebounded by becoming more international, inclusive, and focused on empowering young girls and women as golfers and as leaders. Yet, as is typical in our hetero-sexist world, it has felt the need to play up stereotypical sex-sells and wholesome family marketing to gain corporate sponsorships, fans and new players. As a business entity within our economic culture, the LPGA is primarily concerned with survival and profitability. In that context, it is not surprising to see the emphasis on either sexy cute-pretty-femme or ‘sexily-strong’ portrayals of women pros. Or to see sports organizations preferring to keep LGBTQ athletes quiet and closeted. Suspicions of undesirable butchness or deviance must be avoided at all costs, including downplaying lesbians or transwomen on the fairways and fields, in sports offices and ads.
Despite the clear prevalence and contributions of lesbians in the LPGA since its 1950 inception, the number of out members remains tiny. Sadly, even 70 years later, most pros and staff feel a need to stay closeted to safeguard jobs, endorsements and reputations. Only in 1996 did the first Tour player, Muffin Spencer-Devlin, ever dare come out publicly, in a landmark Sports Illustrated article entitled No More Disguises. In 2014 I interviewed my proud friend Muffin, who bravely chose the path of authenticity and inner peace over the perils of coming out. I asked if she had been told outright or in other ways to keep quiet during her playing career. Her reply:
“Let’s say we knew not to rock the boat. It was a little, or a lot, like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Everyone knows there are gay people on Tour and at LPGA Headquarters – Just don’t say so or talk about it!”
In tennis the pay is better, although not equal as is often believed. In 1966 Billie Jean King took home 750 English pounds for her first Wimbledon win, compared to 2000 pounds for the men’s champion. She changed the game by refusing to play in the 1973 US Open unless paid equally. Thanks to her strong stand, and victory in the historic Battle of The Sexes, women tennis greats have been able to make millions. But their fortunes are still fractional, with female tennis pros averaging 50-80% of men’s earnings. It took until 2007 for Wimbledon to begin awarding equal prize money. The legendary King, after divorcing and coming out, has been an LGBTQ rights activist and leading champion for women’s livelihoods:
“I’m big on equal pay for equal work. Money matters. Money talks. Money gives you opportunity. A quarter of single parents are men, three-quarters are women. When women make less money, they take less money home for their family. And it is baloney. It has to change.”
Soccer star Megan Rapinoe testified before Congress and met with President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden on March 24th, 2021 / Equal Pay Day in America. The date signifies the extra 2 months and 24 days women currently must work to make what a man makes in a year. Rapinoe is the outspoken leader of the phenom American women’s Olympic and world championship teams. While women’s soccer has far and away outshined the US men, and been a leading sports force for more than a generation, their fractional pay lays bare the myth that men are paid more because they are more exciting or lucrative to watch. In her testimony, Rapinoe assailed the unwarranted and illegal gap in pay, training facilities and equipment for women athletes:
“Women’s soccer has broken records, filled stadiums, sold out jerseys, been better known and more successful than men’s soccer …. And still there is no accomplishment or power that will protect you from the clutches of inequality. One cannot simply outperform inequality or be excellent enough to escape discrimination, of any kind.”
Rapinoe went on to point out:
“We’re so often told in this country that if you work hard and achieve you will be rewarded, and fairly. It’s the promise of the American Dream. But that promise has not been there for everyone. With the lack of proper investment, we don’t know the real potential of women’s sports … You would never expect a flower to bloom without water. But women in sport who have been denied water, sunlight, and soil are somehow expected to blossom.
“Invest in women, then let's talk again when you see the return… We don’t have to continue to be patient for decades on end."
Just as Billie Jean King first spearheaded better pay for women in tennis, Rapinoe is leading today’s legal charge to secure equal pay for women soccer players, and all female athletes. In an eruption of ecstatic joy and equality, Rapinoe famously ran and climbed the grandstand wall to kiss her WNBA girlfriend when her team clinched the 2019 World Cup. I wonder if Billie Jean or Martina Navratilova or Muffin could have imagined not only equal paychecks, but public victory kisses and celebrations with their partners?
Title IX and the Equal Pay Act have been the law of the land since the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Marriage Equality since 2013. It is attitudes and actions that must change so that these laws cannot continue to be ignored or worse yet rolled back, but at long last be fully and unequivocally implemented. Today we not only dream of but demand an end to every form of discrimination, and the dawning of total equity and opportunity for every human being on earth.
This is the fourth in a series of articles on Hetero-Sexism in Sport by Jamie Sensei. For a more personal look at its impact, please read Part I: On Being an Athletic Girl & Sportswoman.
Read Article 2 - Uncoupling Athleticism & Opportunity from Gender
Read Article 3 – Mixing Up ‘Manly’ and ‘Athletic’
Read Article 4 - The Gender Pay Chasm in Sports
FaceBook: facebook.com/jamiesensei / Jamie Leno Zimron
Linked In: linkedin.com/in/jamielenozimron/
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