Fighting for equal pay: How U.S. women’s soccer is scoring big

Soccer is all about scoring goals. This summer, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team scored one of its biggest goals ever. But it wasn’t on a field — it was in a courtroom. A federal judge granted preliminary approval of a $24 million settlement between the players and the U.S. Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer). The ruling was a long-awaited victory for female soccer players in the battle for equal pay. The fight started in 2016 when members of the world-champion women’s soccer team filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 2019, on International Women’s Day, the team followed up with a gender discrimination lawsuit citing inequalities in both pay and treatment regarding the men’s and women’s teams. After months of negotiations, the parties finally reached a settlement and a hearing for its final approval is scheduled for Dec. 5

U.S. soccer legend Abby Wambach has been in the thick of this fight since it started. Following the 2015 Women’s World Cup win, Wambach retired from soccer. She walked away with two Olympic gold medals and 184 goals — that’s more than any other player in the world, male or female. But she said it wasn’t until she stepped away from the sport that she gained the perspective she needed. “When you're in it, you can't really feel the injustices that may be going on because you're at the mercy of it. You still have to pay your bills. You don't want to rock the boat too much. You want to keep your job. I've allowed this to happen because I was too scared to say something,” Wambach told MAKERS in a 2016 interview. “And so now, what I want to do with my next steps going forward is to bring light and a voice to maybe some of those women that are in it. This inequality that's being bestowed on us, it's not OK.”

PASADENA, CA - AUGUST 03: Fans hold a women's rights and equal pay sign up during the USA Victory Tour match between the United States of America and the Republic of Ireland on August 3, 2019 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Fans hold equal pay signs up during the USA Victory Tour match on August 3, 2019 in Pasadena, CA. A final approval hearing for the $24 million settlement between U.S. Women's National Soccer team and the U.S. Soccer Federation is scheduled for December 5. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The latest studies released by the Pew Research Center show pay disparities between genders have remained about the same over the past 15 years in the U.S. with women earning 82% of what men earn. But in contrast, the World Economic Forum says the gap in pay among U.S. athletes has increased year after year. In the soccer world, this is most evident when it comes to the coveted World Cup. According to ESPN, the men’s national soccer team can earn up to $2.5 million if it qualifies. However, if the women’s team qualifies, the team can earn only up to $750,000. During those qualifying games, each male player makes $18,125 for every win in the final round while each female player gets paid just $3,000.

Once the new U.S. soccer settlement gets final approval in December, the $24 million will provide back pay for female players as well as fund their post career goals such as charitable efforts to establish more opportunities for women in soccer. The agreement also includes equal pay for all competitions, including the FIFA World Cup. In addition, prize money earned by both the men’s and women’s teams will be pooled and split, making U.S. Soccer the first federation in the world to equalize World Cup prize money. To illustrate what a big deal this is, just look back at the last World Cup cycle. FIFA offered a prize of $38 million to the winner of the 2018 men’s World Cup but offered just $4 million to the winning women’s team the following year.

“What's so funny about being paid less than for doing similar work as my male counterparts is that there's this innate belief system that we are taught throughout our lives, that that's OK. And to be quite honest, it actually makes me mad. It pisses me off,” Wambach told MAKERS. “We need to stop letting people treat us like we are less than because we aren't. We are human beings and we are just as smart. We are just as powerful.”

Abby Wambach speaks onstage during The 2019 MAKERS Conference on February 7, 2019. Wambach is a key player in the fight for equal pay in women's soccer. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS)
Abby Wambach speaks onstage during The 2019 MAKERS Conference on February 7, 2019. Wambach is a key player in the fight for equality. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS) (Vivien Killilea via Getty Images)

Since retiring, Wambach has become an outspoken advocate for equality on a variety of platforms. She delivered a powerful commencement speech at Barnard College about women’s rights that went viral and now has more than 340,000 views on YouTube. She even turned the speech into a New York Times bestseller “Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power and Change the Game”. Wambach also partnered with Secret Deodorant for the “I’d Rather Get Paid” initiative to bring further awareness to the gender pay gap. Last year, Wambach launched a podcast with her wife, Glennon Doyle, “We Can Do Hard Things,” to talk about the many challenges women face and how together, they overcome them. These efforts are all part of Wambach’s mission to use her voice to encourage others to find theirs.

“I'm going after everything. I'm not just going to go after gender and pay and well, I'm going after it all. Like I want equality for all,” Wambach said. “And until that given right, that human right, is afforded to every person on the planet, I'm not going to stop whether it's women versus men. Whether it's pay difference, whether it's just being treated like a normal citizen. Everybody deserves to be treated the same.”