Inside the Fight for Equal Pay for Women Olympians

When the Olympics start on Friday, Simone Biles, Sue Bird, Sydney McLaughlin, Carli Lloyd, Katie Ledeckly and many more women athletes will step on the field, ready to compete for their country. But will their country continue to fight for them and the pay they deserve? 

Members of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team earn just 89 percent of what their male counterparts do. (Twitter)

As Olympians from all over the world gather in Tokyo to compete for the gold, some are fighting for more than just a medal. Women athletes are still not paid fairly, and many Olympians and their supporters are fighting for change.

Despite being at the top of their field and performing better than their male counterparts, women athletes are still earning less than men for doing the same job. This is perhaps best exemplified by the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team, the favorite to win gold this summer at the games. The women’s team has won four Olympic gold medals and four World Cups, while the men’s team has won zero. Beyond their success on the field, the women’s team sells more tickets and draws more viewers than the men’s team. The crowds stand with them as well—after winning the 2019 World Cup, the women’s team was celebrated with cries of “Equal Pay!” from the crowd. Still, women soccer players earn just 89 percent of what their male counterparts do.

“What we’ve learned, and what we continue to learn, is that there is no level of status—and there’s no accomplishment or power—that will protect you from the clutches of inequity,” said star player Megan Rapinoe in her testimony to Congress on March 24, 2021, Equal Pay Day. (Equal Pay Day occurs on the day of the new year that a woman’s earnings would finally equal what the average man earned the previous year.)

The U.S. Women’s national soccer team filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in March 2019, with claims of pay discrimination and unequal treatment, but it was partially dismissed by a federal judge in May 2020. Judge R. Gary Klausner wrote that the team members did not prove wage discrimination, but could continue with their claim of unequal working conditions. As of July 2021, the team is planning to appeal Klausner’s ruling

The plight of the women’s soccer team highlights how far the U.S. is from achieving pay equity—even in the highest ranks of their field, women are still fighting to be treated equally. “This team is living proof that you can be the very best at what you do and still have to fight for equal pay,” said President Biden on Equal Pay Day.

“It’s just unacceptable that we’re still fighting for equal pay. … You want stadiums filled, we filled them,” said Rapinoe. “You want us to take the stars and stripes and the red, white and blue across the entire globe and represent America in the best way possible. We’ve done all of that.”

Equal Pay for Equal Play

On Tuesday, just days before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) reintroduced the Equal Pay for Team USA Act, which require equal pay for all athletes representing the U.S. in international sporting competitions, as well as the same benefits, travel budgets and medical care. Many organizations have already pledged their support for the legislation, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, National Women’s Law Center and Equality League.

“All Americans are proud to see U.S. athletes represent our country on the world stage, and all Americans should be assured these athletes are being compensated equally,” said Cantwell. “It is long past time for us to work together to right this wrong and get this done.”

“It is only right that the women competing for the United States in global athletic competitions receive the same kind of pay and benefits as their male counterparts,” Capito said. “This is an issue we can address together—not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans.”

In another effort to ensure equal pay for women in sports, the Even Playing Field Act, introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on June 24, also seeks to ensure fair and equal pay and conditions for all members of U.S. national teams. The bill was first introduced in July 2019 but has been reintroduced in light of the Tokyo Olympics.

“Pay discrimination is unacceptable in any job, but few things highlight this pay inequity more dramatically than the staggering differences in how our male and female athletes are paid,” said Murray.

The gender pay gap is persistent in America, with women earning just 82 cents for every dollar men earn, and it is even worse for women of color. For every dollar paid to a white man, Black women receive only 63 cents, and this drops to 55 cents for Latina women.

Murray spoke on the importance of intersectionality in the bill, highlighting not only gender equality but other steps that need to be taken to ensure proper treatment for all athletes: “This bill will make sure that female athletes representing our country don’t get shortchanged. But we can’t stop there—we need to make sure every single athlete, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity—gets the pay, dignity and respect they deserve.”

When the Olympics start on Friday, Simone Biles, Sue Bird, Sydney McLaughlin, Carli Lloyd, Katie Ledeckly—and so many more incredible women athletes—will step on the field, ready to compete for their country. But will their country continue to fight for them and the pay they deserve? 

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Meredith Abdelnour is an editorial fellow for Ms. magazine. She studies English and Environmental Studies at Tulane University and enjoys crossword puzzles.