Female Athletes

How Female Athletes are Hugely Disadvantaged Compared to Men

Female athletes are at a huge disadvantage when contrasted to their male counterparts.

The recent controversy was sparked by UEFA’s decision to make Stephanie Frappart the first woman to referee a major men’s European match.

This summer, Forbes released its list of the world’s top 100 highest paid athletes.  At number 63, the only woman to make the list was tennis player Serena Williams.

The sheer lack of women on the list demonstrates the gender inequality inherent in the world of professional sport: it’s not that there aren’t enough women playing sport professionally, it’s that they aren’t being recognised and duly paid for their talents.

In this article iTHINK explores the disadvantages that female athletes face. Amongst the obviously stark gender pay gap, we’ll take a look at why women get paid less and the prejudices they fight against today.

Female Athletes and Low Pay

Female Athletes

Figures show that female athletes playing in team sports such as football and basketball suffer the most from low pay.

Ranked #8 in the FIFA Women’s World Ranking, The Matildas are Australia’s most successful football team to date. After an incredible performance in the 2015 Women’s World Cup which took them all the way to the quarter-finals, the team were compelled to go on strike in order to challenge the low wages they were receiving.

Despite training full time, the team were earning just two-thirds of the minimum wage, forcing former vice-captain Joey Peters to take up work scrubbing toilets in order to get by. By contrast, the Australian men’s team could earn up to 10 times this much for each game played, despite a much lower world ranking of #46.

‘We’re not asking for millions of dollars,’ midfielder Teresa Polias tells Background Briefing during the strike. ‘We’re asking for minimum wage, to sustain our lives off the pitch to do well on it. It’s as simple as that.’

More recently, the USA women’s football team also made news for mixed reasons. While they won the Women’s World Cup for the third time, their outstanding victory drew eyes to the $2 million cash prize, an amount which seemed ridiculous when compared to the $9 million that the USA men’s team won the previous year for finishing sixteenth.

Meanwhile, the winning team of the men’s world cup received a staggering $35 million. That’s 17.5 times what the women were awarded, showing just how disparate the difference in money is between male and female athletes.

Why are female athletes paid so much less?

In 2016, no 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic sparked sexism rows when he publicly announced his opinion that male tennis players deserved to be paid more than their female counterparts. Although he has since apologised, he originally backed his argument up by pointing out that male players attract more spectators and television views.

While the world champion was wrong to say women ‘deserved’ this, there remains a certain level of truth in the comment. Women’s sports struggle to get views or spectators. Because of this, they struggle to get as much coverage and the TV deals they do secure from media companies offer their associations much less money.

According to Forbes, The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) earns $25 million from its TV deal with ESPN each year. Meanwhile, the male NBA’s TV revenue from ESPN and TNT is 100 times that.

With so few people watching women’s sport, it is no wonder these media companies are less willing to spend huge amounts of money covering the matches. For the same reason, major companies are less likely to be interested in sponsoring women’s sports. If they are still interested, much less money will be offered.

It’s clear that for change to be made viewership and spectatorship needs to increase, begging the question of just why the numbers are so low in the first place.

Why are women’s sports not as popular as men’s?

Many people simply don’t find women’s sport as interesting.

Following the semi-final of the Women’s World Cup, one twitter user described the quality of play as ‘shockingly bad’, arguing that women’s football could never be compared to men’s.

Another wrote that ‘no one cares’ about women’s football due to it being ‘physically and technically inferior to men’s football.’

Other users complain that female sports matches such as those run by the WNBA are simply ‘not exciting’ to watch.

Worse still, some people rely on outdated sexist views such as the notion that ‘women shouldn’t play football’, backing their tweets up with misogynistic comments like ‘#getbackinthekitchen.’

Sadly, sexism like this can creep into women’s sports coverage too.

In 1936, American sports writer Paul Gallico shunned female athletes by saying ‘It’s a lady’s business to look beautiful and there are hardly any sports in which she seems able to do it.’

One 25 years long study conducted in America found that while blatant sexism such as comments like Gallico’s have decreased, more subtle sexism still remains. These days, it is often buried beneath discussions about the physical appearance of female athletes or their roles as wives or mothers.

Luckily, it’s not all negative. Despite some sadly unavoidable backlash, women’s football is doing better than ever before.

TV ratings show that England’s victory over Scotland in the Women’s World Cup attracted a record-breaking 4.6 million viewers this summer. Not only has this broken the record for the highest viewership of any women’s football match in the UK, it trumped the mere 550,000 average viewers who have been tuning in to watch England’s matches in the men’s Cricket World Cup.

In the USA, 14.3 million viewers tuned into Fox to watch the national team defeat the Netherlands in the World Cup final. The match became the most-watched football game in U.S history, suggesting a growing interest in women’s sports which will hopefully only continue to rise.

The Future of Women in Sport

Female Athletes

There remains a lot of gender inequality in the world of sport, though things do indeed seem to be looking up.

The recent controversy was sparked by UEFA’s decision to make Stephanie Frappart the first woman to referee a major men’s European match. Frappart will be leading a team of female assistant referees this week.

“I hope the skill and devotion that Stephanie has shown throughout her career to reach this level will provide inspiration to millions of girls and women around Europe, and show them there should be no barriers in order to reach one’s dream,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has said. 

As to be expected, many football fans disagree with the decision, believing Frappart to not be as capable as a male referee despite receiving the same level of qualifications.

With so many men determined to undermine the skills of female athletes in women’s sports, it also becomes clear from reactions to UEFA’s decision that they cannot accept the position of women in the world of men’s sports either.

These limitations on women sadly extend into some official sports associations, too. The Tour de France, for example, has been running for 116 years, however women are still not allowed to compete in the race. In the 1980s the Tour Cycliste Féminin was introduced for female cyclists. It only covered one quarter of the distance of the male race and ended in 2009 due to a lack of funding.

A few years ago a one-day race called La Course by Le Tour de France was launched in response to a petition asking for female athletes to be allowed to join the men’s races. For many women this is still not enough.

In fact, this year a group of female cyclists decided to do their own unofficial Tour De France, starting just a day before the men. The group, who have named themselves the InternationElles, are pedalling with a purpose. Hoping to empower women and female athletes all over the world, British Helen Bridgman explains her motivation:

“There are loads of amazing female pro cycling role models out there, but there’s a total lack of exposure around them because there aren’t the big races to support them. We want this challenge to empower more females to ride bikes, but we also want better representation for the amazing female riders we have at the top levels of the sport so that more women and girls can see them and be inspired by them – because you have to see it to be it.”

With more and more action such as this being taken to fight for equality, women’s sports are being promoted like never before. Female athletes are beginning to get more recognition for their talents, but there is still so much that needs to change.

If you agree that female athletes deserve more attention and higher salaries, you can be part of this change. Buy tickets, watch the matches, talk about women’s sports. If more people were to do this, more money would be generated for women’s sports, allowing it to flourish, improve and treat its athletes with the high salaries they deserve.