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The U.S. Soccer equal pay deal was historic, but 3 big factors could undermine it

Workforce expert Joan Kuhl argues the USWNT accepted the U.S. Soccer labor agreement because of its unprecedented step toward equal pay, but the women most likely did not receive everything they deserved.
Megan Rapinoe lifts up the trophy after winning the Women's World Cup final soccer match at the Stade de Lyon in Decines, outside Lyon, France, on July 7, 2019.
Megan Rapinoe lifts up the trophy after winning the Women's World Cup final soccer match at the Stade de Lyon in Decines, outside Lyon, France, on July 7, 2019.Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Last week, the U.S. Soccer Federation reached a historic collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, which encompasses identical game payments for all players.

The terms include the shared earning of the World Cup payout, which is the pinnacle of financial rewards in the sport. This is a major milestone to celebrate, but we also need to take a pause and observe how this can play out.

Cindy Parlow Cone, President of U.S. Soccer and former World Cup-champion, said she believed the equality position of this deal should have “international ramifications in the sport and into the business world.”

Former USWNT co-captain, Megan Rapinoe called this a great deal but referred to it as “the basement floor,” meaning there’s still plenty of strides to go before reaching true equality.

This agreement was a long time coming and it is worth celebrating the seismic shift for girls and women playing soccer. It came as a hard-won battle on top of other fights for back pay and equal treatment.

I believe the players and teams behind this deal accepted it because of its historic progress, but the women most likely did not receive everything they wanted and deserved.

Specifically, there are three key areas that could influence – or undermine – the impact of the equal pay deal. They apply not only to women in sports but to businesses, organizations and the corporate world too.

Avoid the Performance Pressure Trap

There will be tremendous pressure on the USWNT going into this new deal that hinges on shared performance earnings. Since they are the most successful international women’s soccer team in history – four World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals and eight CONCACAF Gold Cups – they undoubtedly endure the most intense expectations on a global stage.

This agreement creates a whole new level of performance pressure, so they risk bearing historic performance bias against women.

Performance bias is a well-researched phenomena where women are held to higher standards than men. They must have a proven past performance record to show their "worthiness."

What does this look like? “Prove to me you had success already before I consider promoting you or paying you what you've deserved all along.”

By contrast, men are judged by their potential. It is assumed they have supportive performance and as such they are evaluated on, “how high can he go?”

Women deserve to be supported for their potential instead of bearing the tremendous weight of constantly proving themselves. Imagine if every other sports team or business for that matter follows the U.S. Soccer lead and just waits for women to prove their worthy performance before they address pay inequities?

How many women in middle management feel the resentment and burnout of rotating across lateral positions compared to their male counterparts?

It’s pervasive and devalues women’s time and potential.

As a workforce strategist, I speak to women working in multinational corporations all the time who are subjected to the negative cycle of performance bias that derails their career trajectory and engagement.

Perfectionism is a trap that women identify with much more than men – as girls they’re taught to exceed expectations in every role they play. Perfect manager, perfect teammate, perfect coach, perfect mom, perfect wife, perfect sister – the list goes on.

The long road taken by the remarkable women who fought for this next generation deal while maintaining their flawless track record unintentionally puts pressure on the younger players to keep winning.

What’s the best strategy for curbing performance bias?

Kuhl designed the U.S. Soccer SheBelieves Online Academy and Internship Program in 2018. She's pictured (left) with the program's inaugural team of interns
Kuhl designed the U.S. Soccer SheBelieves Online Academy and Internship Program in 2018. She's pictured (left) with the program's inaugural team of internsCourtesy Joan Kuhl

Invest in women earlier and elevate girls’ programming. Increase the support for girls’ soccer development programs and the girls’ leadership organizations that teach them how to perform and succeed on their own terms with confidence and conviction.

Male allies must speak up and act

Women’s mental well-being and performance benefits from a true sense of belonging and support. The U.S. Soccer deal hinges on the collaboration and respect among the male and female players, as well as their leaders and staff.

If leaders are not extremely inclusive and hold alliance as a foundational value, resentment will build on both sides.

For the past six years, I’ve helped build several corporate allyship programs centered on increasing awareness about unconscious bias and training men to sponsor and advocate for female talent.

Men ask how to initiate appropriate mentorship relationships with women and how to speak up for their female teammates. The road to true equity – beyond pay – takes a concerted effort at all levels with visible and vocal male executives leading by example.

Allyship must start early and be intentional. Sports typically move into single gender-based teams in elementary school. How could we continue to blend and build alliances across identity to ensure true universal support in the earlier stages of both sports and business?

The coaches, staff and sports administration behind these teams must be responsible for addressing bias, including holding members accountable for biased behaviors. Everyone benefits when fairness and inclusion are priorities on and off the fields. We need to see productive male and female sponsor-protégé examples in sports and business, in addition to greater investment in women’s sports.

New era for pay transparency

Earlier this year, there was a $22 million pay settlement for USWNT players based on back pay disputes, but that amount represented only a third of what the women wanted. After so many lost and fought battles in their fight for equal pay, this echoes the urgency for more pay transparency.

National Soccer Hall of Famer Abby Wambach’s speech at a Time’s Up event in 2019 where she called out the lack of pay security in her retirement inspired Academy Award winner Natalie Portman to help her launch the first ever majority female-owned women’s soccer team, L.A.’s Angel City Football Club.

In another example, I met Jessica McDonald (Racing Louisville FC) in 2019 after she played and won USWNT’s fourth FIFA World Cup. She was the only mother on the USWNT team during that championship and had brought her son, Jeremiah, to the final games in France.

Image: Kuhl poses with Racing Louisville FC player and USWNT World Cup winner Jessica McDonald.
Kuhl poses with Racing Louisville FC player and USWNT World Cup winner Jessica McDonald.Courtesy Joan Kuhl

Jessica shared with me that behind all this glory, she had been the most traded player at the club level – moving her son multiple times – and packed boxes for Amazon during the off-season to make ends meet. As a woman of color and single mother, she’s had to fight against not only the barriers of pay inequity, but also job flexibility and caregiver demands.

As an advisor for several MBA programs across the country, I’ve observed the increased openness about salary and compensation particularly among the women. Those who attend my corporate workshops are frustrated about the opaque talent management process during promotion cycle years. They rarely have a clue how high the salary jump will be if they do get the title upgrade, which is why women are attracted to new employer offers that exceed the salary band of their promotion.

So what can we learn from the U.S. Soccer deal to encourage more dialogue about pay transparency?

Share where you are now. Be detailed and open about your organization’s performance and pay management process. Everyone deserves more intentional guidance on compensation guidelines and opportunities.

U.S. Soccer is the governing body and steward of the sport for American audiences – their leadership decisions are crucial. While there is most certainly room to celebrate, the men and the women of the organization must remain aligned to secure the best outcomes.

That means taking deliberate action in these three key risk areas to ensure this win is a true game changer for the women. We are just getting started.