• Long term success for women in sport has opened up conversation on equal pay (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The US Women’s Soccer is leading the fight for equal pay in sport. We look at the relative successes of players associations and collective bargaining.
Elizabeth Fitzgerald

14 Jun 2016 - 7:35 AM  UPDATED 14 Jun 2016 - 7:34 AM

Five players on the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) have filed a complaint against their employer alleging wage discrimination based on gender.

The players argue that they get paid significantly less than their male counterparts for the same work. Both national teams are expected to play a minimum of 20 friendly matches per year but, whichever way you look at it, the men earn more money.

For elite sportsmen and women, players associations are a critical part of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.

They are the trade unions of the sporting world. The USWNT are represented by their own association, the Women’s National Team Players Association (WNTPA). They have already had success negotiating some of the best conditions for female players (in team sports) in the world.

The USWNT players get a base salary of $72,000, benefits such as medical insurance, and a bonus for games that they win. Whilst they are certainly not remunerated as well as the men, the WNTPA has so far had good results.

The current push for ‘equal pay for equal play’ by the US women comes at a time when they are in a strong position. They are ranked #1 in the world (the men are #31), have won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. They are likely to add another to their trophy cabinet at Rio this year. Critically, in 2015 the women brought in $20 million more than the men’s team.

The women’s stand has been picked up in the US election to illustrate the wider gender pay gap and the US Senate even passed a non-binding resolution that the US Soccer Federation should “immediately end gender pay inequity and to treat all athletes with the respect and dignity those athletes deserve”. The WNTPA have certainly drawn the issue into the public arena.

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In Australia, men’s and women’s players associations tend to be combined. Our national women’s soccer side the Matildas are represented by Professional Footballers Australia (PFA). The PFA has recently advocated for a ‘whole of game’ bargaining approach. This sounds good in theory but has also been criticised as the Matildas' negotiations are effectively held up until the male players are happy with their deal.

Our female cricketers were allowed to join the previously men’s only Australian Cricket Association as full members in 2009. Recently the women received a substantial pay increase and better conditions such that some players are now able to focus full time on their cricket.

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However, whilst there have been some shows of solidarity, there have also been reports of the male players being reluctant to share particular pools of money with the women.

The Women’s Tennis Association may be the leader in showing how to achieve pay parity in professional sport.

Men and women now get equal prize money at all Grand Slams but this was far from guaranteed a few decades ago. In 1970, after getting fed up with the wage disparity and being dropped from major tournaments, nine women signed on to the first women’s tour.

In 1973 the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was created. Women’s tennis was no longer tied to the men’s, and they could determine their own conditions. Equal prize money at the US Open was achieved the same year.

With some in the tennis world still debating whether women deserve equal pay, it’s possible the current situation may never have eventuated without the women breaking away in the 1970s and going it alone.

We see a similar story in the Olympics. Women were only taken seriously when they formed their own Games. When this became successful, they were ‘welcomed’ back into the Olympics and now have relatively equal standing.

Whilst there may be strength in unity, the best conditions for women seem to have been secured when they have broken ranks. Joint associations may work well when men and women have relatively equal standing already.

But when the starting point for negotiations is inequitable, a players association that tries to advocate for both men and women may move more slowly in improving women’s conditions.

Joint associations walk a tightrope in trying to balance what may be at times competing demands.  Players with different baseline conditions are likely to have different goals in collective bargaining. But when women are focused on their own conditions only, outcomes for them seem to be better.

We do not yet know how the USWNT complaint will play out, but the successes that they have already had point to some clear lessons for Australian sportswomen.

And, given the public nature of the debate, whatever the legal finding it is clear that the moral imperative for equal pay in sport is gaining traction.

Watch this space.

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