Rebecca Turkington is the assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This week, the FIFA Women’s World Cup enters the semi-finals, capping off a tournament that has already broken numerous records for women’s soccer. FIFA estimated that this year’s World Cup in France will draw one billion viewers for the first time—and it is well on track to do so. Teams ranging from China, Scotland, Germany, and Brazil have pulled record domestic viewership for women’s soccer in their opening games. The French broadcaster for the tournament, TF1, expected the women’s opening match to draw 5 million viewers. Instead, it peaked at nearly 11 million, matching the viewership of the French opening match in the 2018 Men’s World Cup.
The numbers are clear—women’s soccer is rapidly gaining a devoted following. But despite undeniable interest, female athletes and teams face serious challenges. From a massive pay gap, to a lack of women in soccer’s governing bodies, to sexual harassment and abuse, even the champion teams struggle for equality.
Why Women’s Sports Matter
Research shows sports provide a critical pathway to leadership for women. One study finds that 94 percent of female C-suite executives are former athletes, and 52 percent played university-level sports, compared to 39 percent of women at other management levels in the private sector. 65 percent of the women on the Fortune Most Powerful Women list report playing sports competitively in high school or college. One study finds that women who played sports in college are 25 percent more likely to consider running for political office than those who did not.
The benefits of sports start early. Research links participation in sports to higher self-esteem, improved body image, and even stronger friendships for girls, and girls who play sports in middle school are more likely to report considering careers in math and science. Women athletes also transform traditional gender norms by serving as role models for both girls and boys.
However, until the 1970s, sports were largely closed to most girls and women in the United States. The passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 threw open the door by prohibiting discrimination based on sex in educational activities that receive federal funds, including sports programs. Title IX has contributed to a 560 percent increase in women playing college sports, and a nearly 1,000 percent increase at the high school level, providing the pipeline necessary for successful professional teams. In Europe, more recent funding and sponsorships have supported the growth of women’s soccer programs. Between 2013 and 2017 alone, the number of girls’ youth teams rose from 21,285 to 35,183, and the number of female semi-pro players nearly tripled. But at the highest level, many challenges still exist.
This March, all 28 members of the U.S. National Women’s Team filed a class-action suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging gender discrimination in pay and working conditions. The team—four-time Olympic gold medalists currently working to win their fourth FIFA World Cup title—makes 38 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. When they took home the 2015 Cup, it came with $2 million in prize money. The U.S. men’s team, who finished 11th, were awarded more than four times that. When the United States won the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991, they received a handshake, and $10 a day for expenses. Though much has changed, the women’s teams competing in France this month will split $30 million in total prizes; only about 7 percent of the prize money that was up for grabs at the Men’s World Cup last year.
Though the vast pay disparity was once explained away by differences in viewership and game attendance, the women are catching up quickly. The 2015 Women’s World Cup Final garnered an estimated 26.7 million American viewers, the highest ever television audience for any soccer game in the United States. Since that final, U.S. women’s games have generated more ticket revenue than U.S. men’s games. As advertisers start to take notice, there are fewer excuses for the astronomical difference in pay, prize money, and program support.
Around the world, women’s soccer programs struggle to overcome cultural stigma, sexual abuse, and even legal prohibitions. In Iran, women are still blocked from even attending soccer matches, after just one stadium game last year was opened to “families.” In Brazil—where the team’s legendary forward Marta holds the record for most goals scored at a FIFA World Cup—women were legally banned from playing soccer until 1981. Argentina’s soccer federation stopped funding its women’s program entirely in 2015. In some countries, neglect is exacerbated by abuse. In Afghanistan, seven players for the women’s soccer team came forward this year with allegations of sexual misconduct against a soccer federation official. And reports of sexual assault and harassment have led to investigations into youth women’s team management in Gabon and Colombia.
Many of these problems have remained unaddressed because of the severe underrepresentation of women in soccer’s governing bodies. FIFA has never had a female president, and elected the first woman to its executive committee in 2013, 110 years after its founding. Currently only 16 percent of FIFA Council members are women. Even in the United States, home to the women’s world champions, women are barely 20 percent of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Board of Directors and professional staff.
No Going Back
The 2019 Women’s World Cup is evidence that women are excelling in professional sports like never before—and drawing new audiences. As athletes push forward, the governing bodies that determine pay and program investment are not keeping pace. Women’s soccer has come far since the days when the World Cup winners received a handshake, but it’s time to reconsider the glaring inequities that remain for women’s teams and leagues around the world.