OPINION: Gender pay equity should be a slam dunk

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

I generally don’t closely track professional sports, but I took note on Sunday when the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream fell short of claiming a spot in the playoffs after defeat by the New York Liberty. A playoff run could have resulted in accolades and financial rewards that have been elusive.

In 2020, the year members of the Atlanta Dream and the 11 other teams in the league dedicated their season to social justice, the league earned much deserved attention that would lead to monetary support and boost the long march toward equitable pay, but there is still a long way to go.

Led by Elizabeth Williams, now forward for the Washington Mystics, the Atlanta Dream and the league showed a unified front after then team co-owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler expressed public opposition to the social justice movement saying it did not align with the values of the WNBA or Atlanta Dream.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert described to ESPN how that moment in 2020 created cachet for the league, ultimately helping raise $75 million from investors.

“There’s a movement out there to support these women,” she said. “I mean, how else would we sign companies like Deloitte, AT&T and Google? They’re trying to build their brand as a supporter of diversity, equity and inclusion. So that’s what’s different, and that’s the momentum I see and why I’m so confident we’re going to turn this around.”

The “this” she is referring to is a system that undervalues women’s sports. In the conversation about pay equity, the WNBA offers some stark realities we can all learn from.

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Two things stood out in my interviews with members of the WNBA at the time: how intentional they were as a league in supporting the ideals that mattered to them and how little they are paid compared to men.

As a WNBA rookie, Rhyne Howard, the first overall pick in the 2022 draft selected by the Atlanta Dream, earned an average annual base salary of about $75,000.

Comparatively, a select contract player for the NBA’s player development league can make $125,000.

Kim Crowder, an equity and inclusion consultant who has worked with NBA and WNBA players, was surprised when she learned years ago that WNBA team members play overseas or take coaching jobs when the season ends to supplement their incomes.

Crowder has received death threats for suggesting that a model that ties revenue to player salaries may not be equitable. Men, she said, had a 50-year head start and it took time to build the league to where it is now. The WNBA, which celebrated 25 years last year, is still a new version of the game, Crowder said.

She finds it particularly upsetting when people talk about pay disparities as if they are unique to sports.

“I’m not understanding why people cannot grasp the fact that inequities can happen anywhere. It is not about ability … is about inequality. Period,” she said.

In 2019, median annual earnings for men in Georgia were $50,346 compared to $40,481 for women, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). That 20% equity gap is wider for some women of color and working mothers.

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The pay gap is slowly closing, particularly when compensable factors are accounted for, but large gender pay gaps still exist in sectors like nonprofits, transportation and warehousing, health care, agencies and consultancies, and finance and insurance, based on findings from Payscale, a repository of global salary data.

Gender stereotypes about a woman’s capacity for certain types of work as well as the low value assigned to work that women do have created persistent pay gaps even in sectors with a high female labor force. In those cases, pay gaps may be driven by the lack of women in high paying roles.

But while corporate America is busy doing equity audits and developing ways to be held accountable for pay equity, the same anchors don’t exist in the entertainment and sports worlds, Crowder said.

Still, we can learn a lot from how WNBA players are playing the long game to achieve pay parity.

When Engelbert began her tenure in 2019, she said the WNBA had a “marketing” problem. Any woman who has ever felt overlooked, unseen and unheard in a job knows exactly how that feels. Companies that are serious about narrowing the pay gap should invest in women in the same ways they invest in men. Engelbert said the $75 million investment would be directed toward marketing and branding for the league and its players.

Terri Jackson, head of the WNBA Players Association, negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement in 2020. The agreement, which runs through the 2027 season, includes a 50-50 revenue split if the league achieves certain growth targets.

WNBA players have said they do not expect to earn the same multimillion-dollar salaries as the top players in the NBA, but they do want the opportunity to have the same share of revenue for doing the same job as their male counterparts.

The league has not disclosed what the growth targets are or the current revenue, but in an interview with ESPN, Jackson noted that none of the revenue sharing agreements have taken effect.

WNBA players have also called for support from NBA players because part of the work of bridging the pay gap requires men to recognize the value of women at work.

On June 23, the date that marked the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Los Angeles Sparks forward Katie Lou Samuelson hit the court wearing shoes with a message: “Pay women athletes.”

No matter what shoes they wear, women should be compensated fairly for their work.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.