The announcement of equal pay for the Irish women’s national football team is a landmark achievement for women’s sport. Current Affairs Editor Conor Daly looks at how this came to be and the work still to be done.
It would appear that we are living in an era of highly successful Irish athletes, and female athletes are at the forefront of that success. The amount of coverage that women in sport garner has never been higher and it is continually increasing year on year. People, on mass, are starting to acknowledge female athletes and take them on their merits without constant unnecessary comparisons to their male counterparts.
The 20×20 campaign of increasing participation attendance and increasing coverage of women’s sport by 20% by the year 2020 was hugely successful. Although these figures weren’t exactly hit, partially impacted by the pandemic, the overall effect has been hugely positive and has changed the landscape of sport drastically in a relatively short period. The campaign focused on increasing visibility for female athletes in the hope of inspiring the next generation, with the powerful tagline of “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it”.
Equal pay for equal work is a movement that is sweeping across nearly every industry, not just sport. However, the remuneration of athletes has proven to be a more nuanced case. Some female athletes, including former UFC champion Ronda Rousey, have questioned the concept of equal pay for female athletes, instead implying that equitable pay is more realistic. This would mean that the earnings of all athletes would be directly proportional to the amount of money they bring into their respective industries. This perspective has proven to be controversial as it would still see women being paid less than their male counterparts.
The reality is that women’s sport is at a different point in its growth trajectory than men’s sport. It is perhaps even unrealistic to think that it could be developed enough in such a short time or for it to be economically viable for women to be paid the same. This of course does not imply that female athletes don’t deserve to be fairly compensated for their work or that they don’t work as hard as their male counterparts. The answers to those questions are rather unequivocal. It just means that the stages of development are totally different and that this is one of the primary reasons for the pay disparity. Of course, women have long been denied opportunities in sport and this is a huge factor in terms of why the development of women’s sport is currently lagging so far behind. Historically, gender-based inequality has been a huge barrier for female athletes but in recent years, those barriers are being slowly but surely lifted.
The issue comes with commercialisation of female sport to the point where the income garnered from such, increases enough that female athletes can begin to close the pay gap on male athletes.
This change is beginning to happen and female athletes are starting to reap the benefits. British tennis sensation Emma Raducanu is one of the most recent examples of this. Her win at the US Open in Flushing Meadows in September earned her around £1.8 million and also brought in a higher viewership than that of the men’s final. This only goes to show that the market is already there. Tennis is a sport in which women have garnered significant coverage for decades, thus, the pay disparity is quite literally years ahead of soccer or rugby, which are relatively new in terms of coverage in mainstream media. For example, former world number one Naomi Osaka was featured in Forbes magazine top-earning athletes of 2021 and is considered to be the highest-earning female athlete ever. This serves as an example to other female athletes that there is money out there, and with the right investment, there could be more women on this list in years to come.
Just recently, in August, it was announced that the Irish women’s national football team would be receiving equal pay from the FAI – a huge decision from an organisation that is desperately seeking to rebrand itself amidst years of controversy. This equal pay agreement is a far cry from the debacle back in 2017, when the team publicly announced that they occasionally had to resort to changing in public toilets and were in some cases sharing tracksuits for their trips.
The US women’s national team who are the reigning world champions have been campaigning for equal pay for years in what has been a very public negotiation. They even brought the US soccer federation to court and filed a lawsuit which was subsequently dismissed by the judge, however, an appeal has since been lodged in the case. There was public opposition to the proposition of equal pay which goes to show that even looking at how much progress there has been, there is still much to be done in terms of levelling the playing field. But more recently, the US soccer federation has offered identical contracts to their male and female players in an attempt to equalise world cup payments. This is the primary concern of the women’s team having won the last two iterations of the World Cup back to back and with the men’s team being relatively average.
It is for this reason that the decision of the FAI is so significant. Equal pay, particularly in a sport that is so commercial, is hugely progressive and it sets an example for other countries to follow. It is also a rather revolutionary move in the context of women’s football as a whole. Now including Ireland, there are just a handful of football federations in the world who pay their male and female international players the same amount of money. Ireland is not the first country to implement such a scheme, but it’s not yet a hugely populated group. England, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, and Norway are currently a host of other international teams that have equal remuneration policies for their international players. It’s still a relatively small list, but the fact that there are any names on the list shows that change is happening and things are going in the right direction.
Radical change always starts with a few small but significant steps. Ireland and the FAI have now taken one of those steps. In doing so they have provided an example for other countries to follow and have also shown young girls that their efforts are not worth less simply because of their gender.