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Let’s Break it Down | You’re Paid Pretty Well … For a Girl

Evelyn Carter, PhD
| President
Evelyn is a social psychologist and DEI expert focused on evolving and advancing the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Last week, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) settled a class action equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) to the tune of $24 million dollars. Although the final sum is only a third of the $66.7 million the USWNT originally sought, Megan Rapinoe called the settlement a “monumental win.” I agree.

As I read more about the suit, one thought kept resurfacing: it shouldn’t have been this hard. The USWNT consistently proved that they were among the world’s best players, evidenced by their 2019 World Cup championship and 2020 Olympic bronze medal. While the women’s team won accolade after accolade, the US Men’s Soccer Team didn’t even qualify for their World Cup (in fact, their best performance in the last several years was a quarter-final appearance in 2002). If team performance was the metric for success, this should have been enough evidence that the women deserved to earn as much as the men.

And yet, that was not the case. In March 2019, the USWNT filed an equal pay lawsuit, kicking off a three-year legal battle. The USSF responded in kind, including a particularly egregious quote from a 2020 legal filing: 

“(Women) do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort [because] the overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men’s national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes such as speed and strength.”

Apparently, being a successful soccer team is not about winning games. Instead, the characteristics that matter most are…speed, and strength.

Although the USSF ultimately apologized for this sexist statement, it remains a perfect example of how stereotypes can creep into evaluating people. In fact, there’s a whole subfield of research on this “shifting standards” effect. Finding after finding highlights that subjective judgments about people like “this person is strong” or “this person is fast,” are problematic when you’re comparing two different groups. People infer expectations of one group’s performance against the other group — “This person is fast” becomes “Compared to the male standard, this person is fast for a woman.” — instead of a shared standard. To the USSF, the USWNT being “good at soccer” apparently just meant, “good at soccer for a women’s team.” The bottom line? The USSF protected the status quo: that men are fundamentally worth more on the field than women, and they shifted their standards of evaluation to protect this sexist dynamic.

Success shouldn’t be based on biased metrics that reinforce stereotypes, like speed and strength. Instead, we should find ways to create fair, consistent, and objective metrics to determine success. In fact, that’s exactly what research says we should be doing. Using objective metrics — like number of wins, or having a metric for speed that applies to every player regardless of gender  — makes it more likely that evaluations between groups will be consistent. And really, that’s what everyone, from players on the USWNT to employees of any organization deserve: to be evaluated by clear and consistent criteria. 

Later this month, we will commemorate Women’s Equal Pay Day, the date that symbolizes when women’s pay for 2021 will catch up with what White, non-Hispanic men earned that year. (Notably, the specific Equal Pay Dates for women of color range from May 3 for AAPI women to December 1 for Latina women.) As that day approaches, I think about the women at companies across the United States, and around the world, who are fighting their own battles for equitable pay, whose companies may not face the same public pressure to change as the USSF did. I’m so glad that the USWNT players were ultimately successful — I think they’re heroes — but the reality is that they invested a lot of time, money, and energy into advocating for something that should have been a given. The fact that they had to put up such a fight is proof positive that the gender pay gap, although narrowing, is still very much a reality. It’s time for organizations and leaders to proactively step up, so women don’t have to be relentless to get what we inherently deserve.

March 3, 2022

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