Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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OP-ED: Leveling the playing field

August 26, 2015
Op-Eds

San Mateo Daily Journal By Jackie Speier August 26, 2015 Women’s Equality Day is an excellent time to assess the status of women’s equality in our country. The world of sports is a particularly sharp lens for viewing how girls and women compare to their male counterparts. “Run like a girl” shouldn’t be an insult — especially when we know that statistically, women have better endurance running marathons than men. One problem is that too many people aren’t used to the idea of women excelling at athletics. It is natural for girls to play sports in school now, but before the passage of Title IX in 1972 it didn’t even occur to people that girls should play organized sports. In fact, many girls were told they weren’t even supposed to sweat. I was one of those girls. When I was in school there wasn’t a soccer team or any type of organized sports for girls. My father made me take judo classes starting in third-grade because he wanted to make sure I was able to take care of myself.

When my daughter was in high school, I made sure she took advantage of the opportunities I didn’t have. She was on the soccer team learning important lessons of being a team player, learning about victory and defeat, learning to persevere. Since Title IX’s passage, girls’ and women’s participation in sports has increased by 560 percent at the college level and 990 percent at the high school level. This higher participation rate has provided a multitude of benefits for young girls and women on and off the field. According to the National Federal of State High School Associations, female athletes, “do better in school, do not drop out, and have a better chance to get through college.” A survey by ESPN-W found that female senior managers and business executives worldwide credit playing organized sports as girls with helping them prepare for the business world: 94 percent played organized sports and 74 percent thought sports accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential. Despite these successes, schools across the country still don’t provide equal opportunities for girls in athletics. There are about 1.3 million fewer chances for girls to play sports in high school than for boys. We’ve started constructing an athletic pipeline for girls in school, but the reality is that upon graduation, female athletes don’t have the opportunities of their male colleagues. Underfunded options like the National Women’s Soccer League and the WNBA leave women struggling to follow their dreams with inadequate pay to support themselves or their families. Only this year did we see the formation of women’s professional leagues for sports like hockey, baseball and football. Americans want to watch women’s sports. The Women’s World Cup final was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history with 26.7 million viewers — that’s more than the Stanley Cup, the 2014 Men’s World Cup, the World Series or the NBA Finals.

They ran like girls — all the way to a world championship! But they weren’t paid equally for their efforts. In spite of their success, the U.S. Women’s National Team only received a $2 million prize from FIFA, about 5 percent of the $35 million prize that the German men’s team got for winning the 2014 Men’s World Cup. In fact, our three-time women’s world champions got one-fourth of what the U.S. men’s team received for losing in the first round of the World Cup. Pay discrimination isn’t limited to prize money. The minimum salary for a player in the National Women’s Soccer League is approximately $6,800. Men’s Major League Soccer players make a minimum of $60,000. When you factor in prize money, salary and endorsements, female soccer players make 40 times less than their male counterparts. We can’t just cheer for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team every four years and expect them to get the pay and respect they deserve. One study found that only 2 percent of airtime on ESPN’s SportsCenter in 2014 was devoted to coverage of any women’s sports. It will take all of us to demand more coverage of women’s sports between now and the next World Cup. We should applaud our champions who refuse to put up with the status quo. California native Venus Williams rightfully pushed organizers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament until they granted equal prize money for female and male players starting in 2007. We need every kind of inside and outside pressure on other sports leagues to follow suit. The story of Title IX shows how much you can change when you fight in a sustained way for a goal. And this lesson doesn’t just apply to sports. Women in our country face pay discrimination, unfair workplace conditions and laws that favor the perpetrators over victims in cases of sexual violence. Worse, the U.S. Constitution actually makes it harder to address these kinds of discrimination by limiting legislation and court action that might prevent it.

Seventy-two percent of Americans assume discrimination against women is banned in the Constitution, but it’s not. The truth is that equality for women simply isn’t written in our founding document. That’s why we must work together to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would add women’s equality to the Constitution. How can we have “liberty and justice for all” when a prohibition against sex discrimination is missing from our nation’s blueprint? On Women’s Equality Day, let’s renew our call for equality for women on and off the playing field. Jackie Speier represents District 14 in the U.S. House of Representatives. She lives in Hillsborough.