Gender pay gap in sports
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As we celebrate International Equal Pay Day on 18 September, we take a closer look at the factors responsible for the existence of gender pay gap in sports.

Historically, participation in sports has been discriminatory, with men being favoured over women, as sport has been considered to be an ‘inappropriate’ field for women. Even though women’s participation has grown over the years, underlying gender biases are still present in many aspects of sport.

Wage gap is one of the most overt areas of prejudice, as women remain far behind men when it comes to being paid in sports. An example of this is the staggering pay gap between the highest paid players in men’s and women’s cricket in India – the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) pays Smriti Mandhana 68.5 thousand US dollars  per annum which is 7% of Virat Kohli’s annual income of 952 thousand US dollars.

Why does the pay gap exist?

Revenue generation

The generation of revenue is often used as an argument to legitimise the pay gap in sports. The argument is that the returns generated by male players are higher than what women generate. While assessing the monetary benefits in sports, a few  things are considered, including endorsements, sports merchandising and ticket sales, among others. However, this is based on the viewership and fanbase, which is, in turn, influenced by the androcentric nature of sports.

Women’s entry into sports happened much later than men due to societal restrictions. This has resulted in a lower ‘entertainment value’ of women’s sport. On the other hand, men’s sport has always been encouraged, which has allowed it to become a global sensation, further driving investments in it.

It is important, as well, to note that fans and viewers of sports are largely men, as women are often times restrained by systemic barriers which prevent them from viewing sport, such as the lack of access to financial and physical resources, mobility issues and the fear of violence from attending sport events. The profits generated in men’s sports are deeply embedded in the misogynistic system, and thus there is a need to move beyond these justifications of the pay gap and work towards correcting the faults in society.

Differential performance

Another argument used to defend the pay gap in sports is the difference in the physiques of men and women This argument states that since men are ‘stronger’ and can perform better in sports than women, they should be paid a higher amount.

This is an argument that has been upheld by some of the most popular elite sports. In professional tennis, men play five sets per match and women play three sets per match, a rule based on the assumption that women are physically weaker than men. Despite women’s demonstrated willingness and capability to play five sets, decision-makers (who were mostly men) believed that the quality of the game would deteriorate if women played five sets. Yet, the quality of performance can decline regardless of gender, and this should not then be used as a parameter to pay one gender more than the other. Although the Grand Slams have been paying the same prize money to men and women since 2007, female tennis players are paid much less at women-only tournaments than what male players are paid at men-only events.

While it could be true that men have better strength and speed than women, these are only two aspects of a body which matter in sport, and they cannot form the basis to pay men more than women. Women could be better at other aspects like balance and flexibility, but this does not mean that women in sports that require flexibility and balance are paid more than men.

Representation issues

The weak representation of women in sports governance structures is also a cause of the persistence of the pay gap in the sport industry. Female representation in some governance structures has improved, but this has only happened recently. Further, most of the governing bodies still need a stronger push to enhance female membership.

The number of positions held by women in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) increased to 47.7%, but there is a dearth of women in the governance structures of other affiliated bodies. This has also been reflected in decision-making related to the financial outlay in sports – according to a BBC study of 68 different sports, 83% of sports give men and women equal prize money, but this is only at the world championship level. There is still a need to strengthen representation at international as well as national sports governance institutions to add the much-needed perspective of women.

Leading the way

Women’s perseverance and determination to demand equal rights have resulted in positive changes. The struggle against gender pay gap in sports is another fight against structural inequality, and there are many inspiring voices that have taken charge of challenging the gender-based economic divide in sports.

The FIFA World Cup win of the United States Women’s National Team in 2019 was a landmark victory in paving the path to equality, as the women’s team filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation, accusing them of gender discrimination. Another instance of exemplary courage was demonstrated by the Norwegian Soccer player Ada Hegerberg in 2019, when she decided not to play the Women’s World Cup to protest against the gender pay gap. Dipika Pallikal, the Indian squash player, questioned the unequal rewards for men and women and refused to play in the squash nationals in 2015. While these are recent instances of dissent, some of the revolutionary efforts go back to Billie Jean King, when she led the movement for equal pay for male and female players in tennis tournaments, starting in 1973.


Biased profit generation and media coverage, unequal representation in sports governance structures and the notion of difference in physique have massively contributed to the gender-based financial divide in sports. Efforts at the institutional level have started taking place, which play an important role in laying the foundation to bring long-term positive changes to narrow the gender pay gap. However, the process of bringing about these changes needs to be faster and more even across the world, to ensure that sport becomes more equitable for all, regardless of gender.  


Operating Team