Man standing on top of a dollar bill and a woman standing ona stack of coins.
Illustration by Sofia Reeves

Gender pay gap in sports shines light on larger societal equity issues

Recently, an infographic comparing the salaries of professional basketball players Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm and LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers circulated on social media platforms. The infographic went viral for calling attention to the long-standing issue of gender pay gaps in sports. Although the two players have both played for 17 seasons and won four championships, James earns around 175 times the amount that Bird does. 

Gender based pay gaps in sports are part of two larger issues: that women in all fields are typically paid less than men, and the problem of gender discrimination that exists in sports as a whole. The United States Census Bureau’s most current estimates are that on average, for every dollar a man earns, a woman working the same job will earn just 81 cents. The sports world seems to be just another place where this statistic is relevant, perhaps with a much more dramatic divide. 

Gender pay gaps are also an example of the gender divide in sports. Most sports continue to be separated between men and women, even as more people are beginning to understand that gender is a spectrum-based concept, and that dividing sports into the categories of women and men does not accurately reflect the true nature of gender. Continuing separation based on gender is unfair to athletes who fall outside the gender binary, and it upholds the idea that female and male athletes have fundamentally different abilities and skill levels.

Discussions about gender and pay in sports are not new, but developments regularly occur. In 2019, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for the contested pay gap between the men’s and women’s soccer teams. The women’s team has been more successful recently; winning back-to-back World Cups while the men have not placed higher than third place since 1930. Extreme gender pay gaps are so common in sports that less than 10 women have ever made the Forbes list of the top 500 highest-paid athletes. The only women to ever crack the top 500, such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, are both tennis players. This is significant because tennis is the only professional sport where men and women are paid equal prizes for winning tournaments. 

The main argument for the low payment of female athletes is that women’s sports do not generate the same kind of interest that men’s sports do. Female athletes deal with low viewership, lack of sponsorships and an overall lack of interest in their sports. It becomes clear, then, that this is a cultural problem. If women playing the same sports as men do not receive the same attention, that is because women’s achievements are simply not valued as much as men’s. 

The athletes at Lewis & Clark participate in Division III sports and are given neither pay nor sports scholarships, yet gender equality issues are still present. LC is a part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and participates in the Northwest Conference (NWC). In order to participate in sports at all, LC teams must uphold the gender divisions present in the organization of the conference. The NCAA guidelines continue to reinforce these toxic gender binaries while making it nearly impossible to break free from them and still participate in sports at the collegiate level. On the scale of a small college where the purpose of sports is not about becoming a professional athlete, gender differences may seem insignificant, but they still feed back into the larger system that upholds barriers between male and female athletes. 

The ultimate impact of enforced gender binaries and the severe pay gaps in sports is that female athletes are discriminated against within their fields. Less women want to become athletes because it means entering a field where they have to work harder for less pay. The public’s lack of interest in women’s sports sends the message that women are not good enough, and will never be good enough to deserve attention. As long as sports remain as divided as they are today, there is no way that athletes of any gender can truly be recognized for their talents, skills and dedication.

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