Addressing the gender gap on pitch and in the boardroom

There are lots of arguments about why women in sport earn less than men. Why do these persist? And what can we do to address it?

 Two jars filled with coins labelled his and hers, his has more coins in it.

You may have heard that there’s a gender pay gap. Currently, a woman in the US earns just 78% of what a male colleague earns doing the same job. And the same goes for sport as well. 

When Wimbledon became the last major tennis tournament to equalize its prize money in 2007, it was celebrated as a major step forward in the fight for pay equality between male and female athletes. But the differences persist elsewhere. In soccer, the top paid woman player in England, Steph Houghton, earns around £65,000 every year. Compare this with English male professional soccer player, Wayne Rooney, who makes £300,000 per week. 

And the discrimination extends beyond just pay. Analysis by Cambridge University Press found that women in sport were routinely discussed in a way that focused attention away from their performance. 

But why do these differences persist? And what can be done to counter them?

Culture of difference

While boys and girls display similar levels of strength in childhood, by the time they reach adulthood, men will, on average, have 40% more upper body strength and 30% more lower body strength, as well as be about five inches taller — and these differences can impact on performance.

But this is not the whole story.

Much of the difference needs to be attributed to social conditions that discourage women from playing sport or neglect their development. For instance, because women athletes are paid less than their male peers, women can less easily afford to devote more of their time to training. This then impacts negatively on their performance.

Neglect even starts in childhood: studies have found that male children are far more likely to receive instruction to help them improve at sport. Girls are more often allowed to fail. Unsurprisingly, if an environment undervalues women’s performance, it will not be as good at nurturing it. 

Different skills

But, even if the average female athlete may not be able to bench-press as much as the average man, this distinction ignores another key argument — there are lots of areas in which women routinely outperform men.

Higher levels of estrogen and different distribution of body fat mean that women very often outperform men at long-distance running. Indeed, for running, the longer the race, the closer the performance gap. Women also perform well in other endurance tasks, such as sled-racing

In golf, women hit the ball at about 95mph. Men hit the ball at around 113mph. But, when it comes to accuracy, women are far better. The most accurate male golfer in the PGA hits with around 72.8% accuracy. The most accurate female golfer, Dana Finkelstein, hits with 88.2% accuracy. US Open Champion Geoff Ogilvy has publicly said that “the top women players consistently hit closer to where they are aiming than the top guys.”

Lessons for business

The world is slowly waking up to women’s sport. A 2014 soccer match between the England and Germany women’s teams at Wembley took place in front of a record crowd of over 45,000 people. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be the first to feature mixed gender events — in relay races, the triathlon and table tennis. And EY is proud to be sponsoring the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017. 

And if sport can make these moves toward parity, so can businesses. There are two key lessons that organizations can learn from sport about confronting challenges facing female athletes:

  1. Develop women at the right stages: Part of the reason sportswomen lack parity in pay with men is because they’re not always given the training and encouragement at the right age. The same applies in the workplace. In order for women to thrive within an organization, measures must be taken to engage and mentor them at every stage. 
  2. Diversity is strength: Women, on average, can’t bench-press as much as men. But they can get a golf ball down a fairway a lot more accurately. Different does not mean inferior in the world of sport, and nor should it in the boardroom. Boards need to welcome inclusivity — not just as an ethical obligation, but as a source of strength and flexibility. After all, organizations with boards comprised of at least 30% women tend to outperform organizations with no women on their boards by about 6%, according to data from EY Women Fast Forward initiative.

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