The U.S. women’s national soccer team sued its employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, for gender discrimination last March — the first known lawsuit of its kind in professional sports. The dispute was a culmination of years of pushing for pay equality and quickly became a media sensation, bolstered by the team’s fourth World Cup win, which came early of last year. As the world watched all 28 teammates band together, there were a number of important lessons we can learn from their fight for equality, especially in the face of opposition from their employer.
The parallels that can be drawn between the lawsuit and the corporate world are indisputable. For the first time in U.S. history, organizations with over 100 employees are required to disclose detailed pay data — including the compensation of women — to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the deadline is looming. Given that there is still no country in the world where the gender pay gap has closed and that it could take over 200 years to change this, it would not be surprising to see the results of this report cause some disruption in the progress toward gender parity.
What can the U.S. women’s team teach employees facing the discrimination they are currently fighting, and how can employers respond effectively?
Four lessons in particular stand out.
1) Align with your team.
The lawsuit filed by the women’s team has its roots in years of alleged discrimination. In fact, five members filed a wage discrimination complaint with the EEOC back in 2016. But the power of having all 28 teammates aligned in a singular mission has helped move the conversation forward in a way that five people just can’t.
“There are some important parallels between sports and the business world, particularly if you view sports as a business, and the athletes as employees,” says Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Purdue University. “The team’s cohesion is a key part of this. Collective advocacy provides a kind of safety. It drives movement. If you go on strike, everyone goes on strike. Not just one person.”
This idea is not a new one. Strength in numbers has been important in allegations of discrimination and misconduct for a long time. At Microsoft, 90 pages of emails from various women at the organization led to an overhaul of company policies related to sexual harassment and misconduct. At Google, over 20,000 employees around the world staged walkouts to protest the way the company handled sexual misconduct cases. “If we banded together, what could we do?” asked a post on a messaging list for mothers at Google.
2) Collect data.
The U.S. women’s team used data to illustrate clear pay disparities. In their suit, they lay out how the men’s team lost more games than the women’s team, alleging that if compared directly by number of matches played by each team, similarly placed men outearn female players by 38%. “If you think of the way the teams play in terms of business success,” says Cooky, “by comparison, the women’s team has a better product.”
A common form of pushback that is often used against wage equity in professional sports, which are sex segregated, is that women’s sports are not watched as widely as men’s. The soccer team came prepared for this pushback. They leveraged data showing that between 2016 and 2018, their matches generated around $1 million more in revenue than the men’s — $50.8 million versus $49.9 million.
“They were able to demonstrate their case for discrimination in an empirical way,” says Cooky. “They had hard numbers, and so it wasn’t subjective. It wasn’t an appeal to morals or ethics. This was a case where women were outperforming men on a number of different metrics.”
We’ve seen this play out in the corporate world many times.
Look at Nike. Just last year its employees generated a survey to collect data on sexual harassment within the company. Their efforts led to clear evidence of repeated bad behavior from two executives who were fired thereafter.
Tracy Chou, a former engineer at Pinterest, offers another example. In 2013 Chou created an open-source document to crowdsource the number of female engineers companies had in their ranks. Through data collection, she was able to shift the narrative that few women are hired into tech roles because of “pipeline issues” toward the systemic barriers women face at work, including the hostility that is often directed at female engineers.
No matter the cause, empirical data is crucial to fighting discrimination, particularly wage discrimination disputes. Before raising an issue, collect meticulous notes on what you see happening at your company — even instances that may not seem relevant — and engage legal counsel to educate yourself on what can be done.
3) Appoint strong leaders.
Strong leadership was a key tenet in driving team cohesion toward a shared goal in the U.S. women’s team’s fight for equality. Led by Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and Alex Morgan, on and off the field, the team had strong, capable captains to follow. Rapinoe, in particular, has spoken relentlessly about the push for pay equity and the effect it would have on other industries.
“From a social perspective, from leaving the game in a better place for women everywhere, if it’s not equal, then there’s no deal that we can get to,” Rapinoe told NBC. “This isn’t bargaining. You either value us equally and show that, or you don’t.”
Cooky adds, “Megan Rapinoe is someone who is very invested in social justice issues, not just around gender, but around race and sexuality. She’s a very charismatic figure. Within the sports world especially, it’s a lot easier to come out and argue for your rights as a worker when you are at the top of your game.”
In your own efforts, try to engage with a leader who has clout within your organization. Doing so will ensure you get buy-in and support from someone you already have a relationship with — and who has influence over the stakeholders who are making decisions. If HR does not take your claim seriously, the next step is to get more people on board and make your spokesperson someone who can’t be ignored. Most times, this means someone in a position of power. If you find yourself in the position to lead, be relentless in your advocacy. Understand that there are risks, and ensure you know and accept what’s at stake.
4) Look for allies.
The position of the women’s team was further strengthened in July, when the men’s national team stood up to the U.S. Soccer Federation and disputed the federation’s statement that the women players were actually paid more. “The women’s national team players deserve equal pay and are right to pursue a legal remedy from the courts or Congress,” they wrote.
The men’s team also objected to the way Carlos Cordeiro, president of the federation, presented data in an attempt to curtail the women’s claims. “We do not believe [the data] justifies discrediting the work they do or the real value of their profound impact on the American sports landscape,” they stated. Beyond this, the women’s team was able to secure worldwide support from influential advocates, including a bill from U.S. Senator Joe Manchin that would prevent the use of federal funds for the men’s World Cup unless the women were paid equally.
While the women’s team did have the benefit of being in the national spotlight — a position that helped foster support — I’ve seen this kind of allyship succeed in everyday work situations as well. One woman of color whose organization I volunteered with, for example, was fired without explanation. After the fact, she connected with influential women of color and allies within the local community, who in turn wrote a letter to the board, which prompted an investigation into the organization.
When bringing up issues of discrimination to an employer, it’s important to follow in these footsteps and seek allies from others outside of your organization, especially those with more influence than you. The threat of negative community, customer, and media attention should, at the least, spur an employer to take notice of your claims.
Real change can occur only when employers understand the importance of equality and actively work to reduce discrimination in the workforce. Longstanding issues won’t be fixed unless employers extend their support.
If you are a manager who encounters reports of discrimination, here are a few pointers on approaching a tenuous situation.
1) Review the data honestly and have an independent third party review the complaint.
In matters of pay equity, especially, you will have more credibility and trust with your employees if you can demonstrate that you are taking discrimination claims seriously. For an example of what not to do, look to the U.S. Soccer Federation, who publicly disputed the women’s team’s claims with evidence that wasn’t pertinent to the case. In doing so, they lost trust not only with the women’s team, but also the men’s team and the public.
2) Take a learning and growth approach to the claims, uncomfortable as it may be.
Do not go on the defensive. In attempt to gain support from the public, the U.S. Soccer Federation released a statement claiming that the women’s team had been paid more than the men’s — a comparison that is difficult to make due to the differing pay structures of each team. The women have a base salary, whereas the men are mainly paid based on performance. This act resulted in pushback from the men’s team, who claimed one stat was “false accounting,” and it didn’t look good in the eyes of the public either. A better approach is to review honestly what your organization may be missing to support people who report discrimination. Even if your investigations and data determine that discrimination is not at play, take added steps to understand why employees might be feeling unsupported. Rebuilding trust should be a key focus in these situations.
3) Recognize the systemic and industry barriers that may be causing discrimination, even if it’s unintentional.
“As an organization, take some time to reflect on your policies and practices,” advises Cooky. “With regards to the U.S women’s soccer team, if the federation says they’re not generating enough revenue, my immediate thought is: ‘Why? How is the team marketed?” She points to the lower advertising and marketing spend on the women’s matches, as compared with the men’s matches. Cooky says Major League Soccer matches in the U.S. are broadcast on ESPN for millions of dollars, whereas the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) matches have been largely broadcast on YouTube. To the point, in July 2019, ESPN announced a deal to broadcast the second-half of their 2019 season — the most number of NWSL matches it has ever shown on TV in a single year. They have been operating in a system that wasn’t designed to help them succeed in the same way as their male counterparts.
If you’re an organization leader in this situation, seek to understand: what are the actions you could take to create equality? What about the workplace may be designed to help some employees succeed, but not others? Without leading from this framing, you will, at best, come up with band-aid solutions. At worst, you will maintain a problematic status quo and lose the trust of your employees, and in some cases, customers.
We are at an unprecedented time in history, where movements like #MeToo and the push for gender equality continue to gain traction around the world. The courage demonstrated by the U.S. women’s soccer team’s fight for equal pay is just one example of how powerful collective action can be when it comes to overturning systematic barriers and driving longer term change. Equally, their suit has shown us the consequences employers like the U.S. Soccer Federation face when they fail to step up against discrimination and bias. If we expect all employees to bring their best selves to work, we should take to heart the words from the U.S. women’s team campaign: “Equal Play, Equal Pay.”