The gender pay gap is closing but the disparity remains
There is an interesting rule at play in a lot of today’s prestigious marathons: The fastest women racers can get a head start of about half an hour ahead of the rest of the race’s participants.
Races adopt this rule in order to allow the fastest women to race each other without obstruction, which, according to the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), was an effort to “better showcase the women’s elite field.”
It’s a rule that probably deserves to be applauded for its innocent attempt at fairness (a quality that has come to be considered as less of a custom and more of a radical stance these days), except it’s also the same rule that has left the top three female finishers ineligible to receive prize money at this year’s Boston Marathon.
When rules fail
One of the top female finishers in the 2018 Boston Marathon was Jessica Chichester. She clocked in at 2:45:23 and finished in fifth place, which meant that she was supposed to be awarded a sum of $15,000. But unlike the male racer who also placed fifth in the male division, Chichester went home without the prize money. The reason being that she didn’t race as part of the elite women’s start (the group of women racers who got a half-hour head start).
According to the official rules of the Boston Marathon, women who “choose” not to race as part of the said group waive their right to compete for prize money. Yet it turns out that racing with elites isn’t exactly a matter of choice: To acquire this so-called right, women had to first qualify as an elite racer by running a time of 2:47:50 or faster. Chichester wasn’t one of the 46 women who met the qualifying time, which meant that—as the BAA has made clear—she was technically ineligible to compete for prize money.
There is no similar division that exists for male racers, making all 16,587 male participants potentially eligible for a cash prize.
Marathon communities have since questioned the situation, with Chichester herself expressing some complaints to BuzzFeed. But just a few days after the race, the BAA announced that they have decided to award the women with the prize money anyway.
The gender pay gap is narrowing—but not by much
Regardless of the actual reason behind BAA’s decision, it comes as a welcome addition to the progress currently being made in the closing of the gender prize money gap.
Over the last three years, women’s remunerations have been rising, and, according to a study published last year by BBC Sport, a total of 83 percent of sports now reward men and women equally. This is a significant improvement from the case over four years ago, where it was found that only 70 percent of sports paid both sexes equally; it’s also a far cry from the disturbing conditions in 1973 when not a single sport paid men and women equally.
Things are changing, yes, but how does this figure into the mostly impermeable economic landscape of the sports world? Is it naïve to take it as an indication that pay parity will soon be reached? The field of competitive sports is and remains to be male-dominated, and the fact that things have been this way for the longest time warns us that any kind of progress ought to be treated with cautious optimism.
We are talking about an industry that possibly has the largest gender pay gap, after all. Beatrice Fey, sport partnership manager at UN Women, articulates it best: “I cannot think of any other industry that has such a wage gap, really. Depending on country context and sport, a man can be billionaire and a woman [in the same discipline] cannot even get a minimum salary.”
How big is the gender pay gap per sport?
According to a study by Women on Boards, a single tournament pays female US football players four times less than their male counterparts. That reality becomes worse once you consider the total payout in the FIFA World Cup: The Women’s Cup awards its winning players with $15 million, while the male version of this tournament hands out $576 million to its winners. That’s almost 40 times bigger than what female footballers receive.
Men in the US Open have the chance to compete for prize money amounting to almost $1.5 million. A report by Newsweek illustrates a grim picture of how unfair that gap plays out: In 2015, New Zealand’s Lydia Ko became the youngest professional golfer to be ranked number one of either gender. She was also that year’s leader in prize money on the LPGA Tour, but the amount she received—$2.8 million—was only a fraction pocketed by her male counterpart, Jordan Spieth, who led the PGA Tour money list with $12 million.
The same report by Newsweek provides an excellent gist of the gap in this particular sport: “The highest-paid player in the WNBA (the Women’s National Basketball Association) makes roughly one-fifth that of the lowest-paid player in the NBA.” Perhaps it’s a fair move to point out that a lot of what causes that alarming disparity has to do with the fact that the NBA is a much bigger entity than the WNBA. You could say that obviously more people care about and support the NBA (relative to WNBA) and that kind of attention consequently makes it a much bigger economic institution.
But besides popularity, we should consider other factors that enable and perpetuate that kind of reach. For one, there’s media coverage. Every year, ESPN and Turner Sports pay the NBA about $2.6 billion to televise the NBA. WNBA, meanwhile, is paid by ESPN with an amount less than a half percent of what is offered to the NBA.
When people hold out hope for the narrowing gender pay gap, they probably have the status of tennis remunerations in mind. It is one of the most gender-equitable sports, with prize money being equal for men and women in all four Slam events. At this point, though, it should be clear that the reality of the gender pay gap in sports is rather complex—that is, what determines the disparity does not end with unequal prize money alone.
Besides the aforementioned media coverage, there’s also sponsorship, endorsements, and contractual conditions. Male tennis players are offered more (and better) sponsorship deals and their matches generally get more airtime. So while the likes of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have made it on Forbes’ 2015 “World’s 100 Highest Paid Athletes”—in fact they were the only women to have done so in that year—their total earnings still pale in comparison to Roger Federer’s $67 million for 2015 alone.