The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, held this year in France, promises a dynamic mixture of joy and disappointment for the 24 teams that qualified. But as the world attends or tunes in to watch it all unfold, a struggle continues off the soccer pitch that many are not aware of; that is, the struggle against the gaping gender-based pay gap in the industry.
According to data published in 2018 by the International Federation of Professional Footballers, 49 percent of professional female soccer players do not receive a salary – even as the industry generated more than $500 billion each year. About 87 percent of players will finish their career before the age of 25, due to low pay or lack of pay.
The disparity reaches the highest levels of the sport. While Lionel Messi receives 130 million euros per year, Ada Hegerberg —winner of the first Women’s Ballon d’Or — receives 400,000 euros per year, or 325 times less.
"Women continue to be considered second-class citizens, and it's not just for the money," says Marion Reimers, a sports journalist for FoxSports América Latina. "Women's football receives what is left over from all the men's teams, so they do not have the materials, support or representation necessary within the sports ecosystem."
The situation is not new. In 2012, Brazil’s Santos Football Club eliminated its female branch, only to cover the salary of male star Neymar and delay the player's sale to FC Barcelona. There are even starker examples: in some women's teams, selections have had to use previously worn men’s shirts, and players have had to pay for their own tickets to tournaments.
"Football is a megaphone of society, a microcosm where good and bad come to the surface. The human will and friendship on the one hand, and inequalities and machismo on the other. They are a mirror of what happens in the world," explains Marion Reimers.
A Place on the Pitch
Soccer began as a male sport since its first laws were formulated in 1863. The first women’s match was held nearly three decades later. The rise of women's football did not come until the First World War, however, when women went to work in factories and took advantage of free time to play soccer.
Its development was interrupted in 1921, when the English Football Federation banned the use of sports venues for matches between women. Women's soccer was benched for almost half a century. It was not until 1971 that the British lifted the ban, and only in 1980 was women’s soccer recognized by FIFA. It took another 11 years for the first women’s soccer tournament to be held.
"Football is a megaphone of society, a microcosm where good and bad come to the surface: the human will and friendship on the one hand, and inequalities and machismo on the other. It is a mirror of what happens in the world," Reimers says.
This year’s World Cup displays that mirror-like quality. The qualified countries are those that have high levels of gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 ranking. The ranking refers to equality not only in salaries, but in terms of employment, political representation, health and education opportunities. Moreover, a full half of the teams participating this year are from countries that place within the top 40.
An IDB study shows that in Latin America and the Caribbean, women receive less income than men in all professions. The factors are multiple, from lack of representation in politics to inequality in the distribution of unpaid domestic tasks.
Interactive: What's the relation between gender (in)equality and soccer? See how your country is performing.
The region is represented in this year's World Cup by Jamaica, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, although they have some of the lowest gender gaps in the region. However, the main challenge is that, of the 26 Latin American and Caribbean countries, very few have a professional female team. To this is added the decision of CONMEBOL and CONCACAF —the continental entities that govern football in South and North America/Caribbean, respectively— for hosting the Copa América 2019 in Brazil on the same dates.
"This happens, because women are not represented in any area of this industry," says Reimers. "For example, 95% of sports content is directed and presented by male figures. They are the ones who say that women's football does not sell, but in truth the problem is that by not having women in this ecosystem, its members do not know how to sell it, nor do they know who to sell it to," she explains.
In 2017, Reimers founded Versus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering debate about multiple forms of discrimination in sports reporting. "For us, sports journalism is a trojan horse that has the capacity to reach millions of spectators with powerful messages," she says.
While significant steps have been taken in recent years to move toward equity, advocates say that post-goal celebrations remain far off. Only to eliminate the global gender gap would we need 108 years. At the current rate, autonomous vehicles will be a reality well before full gender equality.
A Time for action
Viewers of this year’s tournament surely know the story of Formiga. The Brazilian player from Paris Saint-Germain has now participated in more World Cups than any other woman. The 41-year-old decided to use the opportunity to continue promoting women's soccer.
For her part, Ada Hegerberg chose not to participate, and instead joined the #TimeForAction campaign to raise awareness of how the lack of female representation affects all areas of the sports industry. She has ample personal evidence; when she received the Ballon d’Or in 2018, the first year the award was given to women, she was asked to "twerk" on stage.
Earlier this month, UN Women signed a memorandum of understanding with FIFA to develop sports policy, raise awareness about gender equality and use soccer as a tool to empower women and girls. The underlying idea is to harness the power of the world’s most popular sport to help close, not exemplify, the world’s gender gaps.