The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) forges ahead in an ongoing equal pay lawsuit against its employer. Most recently the organization received support from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other federal agencies.

As the case garners outside support, it continues to put a national spotlight on the nuances around pay equity. Read on to learn how the champion team’s pursuit of victory transcends the field and takes on the courtroom in its fight for equal pay. 

What’s the background?

The USWNT discrimination claim originated in 2019, when the women players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) on the grounds that they were underpaid in comparison to the men’s national team and subjected to inequitable working conditions.

A district court judge dismissed the case in May 2020 on the basis that the women’s team had actually earned more overall than their male counterparts from 2015-2019. The USWNT filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit, stating the judge’s ruling was based on flawed legal reasoning. Specifically, the players argued that their pay was marginally higher only because they had won 30% more games than the men’s team.

“In effect, the court held that pay is equal if a woman can obtain the same amount of money as a man by working more and performing better… That is not the law,” the USWNT said in the appeal. “Under the court’s approach, the women had to be the best in the world to achieve the same per-game pay as the much less successful men. That is not an equal rate of pay.”

The USWNT and the USSF did reach a partial settlement in December 2020 on the team’s Title VII claims, which ensured equal working conditions.

What’s happening now?

The case has gained a foothold not only in the press, but also with supporting organizations. According to the National Law Review, the EEOC recently became the fifth federal agency to file an amicus curiae brief (“friend of the court”) backing the team. While not a party to the case, the EEOC can provide arguments through this brief that may help the appeals court make its decision. This support helps fortify the players’ case as they move forward.

In the amicus curiae, the EEOC focuses on two mistakes made by the district court. First, it contests the court’s decision to credit the USSF’s expert testimony over USWNT’s expert, who demonstrated the pay disparity between the men and women’s teams during 2015-2019 was nearly $64 million in favor of the men. 

Secondly, it challenges the USSF expert’s assumption that all games, high-stakes or not – from friendly matches to World Cup tournaments – were equal, which requires the women’s team to work more and be more successful on the field in order to be paid the same as the men’s team.

The topic of pay equity is rising throughout the nation, from sports arenas to board rooms. The USWNT case is just one example of many recent efforts to strengthen equal pay policies in U.S. sports. Further, equity is a high priority at the federal level, with the Biden administration already passing two diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) executive orders in the federal workforce since the beginning of the year. It won’t be long before such measures are standard across the board.

Ultimately, the USSF may find itself liable for extensive damages to the women’s soccer team that will further hurt its finances and reputation. This situation could have been avoided if the organization had proactively conducted an audit of its pay practices to identify and resolve potential pay gaps.

Other employers can learn by this example and implement a data-informed approach to pay equity in their workforces before something comes up. Beyond compliance with inevitable legislation, organizational commitment to advancing pay equity is simply the right thing to do.

Trusaic’s PayParity solution offers always-on pay equity analytics, diversity scoring, inclusion sentiment metrics, and expert consulting services to help you be proactive in meeting your pay equity goals. Learn how your organization can safeguard its reputation and protect against risk.

Read our research report, Creating a Culture of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services to learn more.