This March, just months before racking up a record-setting number of goals in their World Cup debut, the 2019 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), charging “institutionalized gender discrimination.” Regardless of what happens on the field as the tournament progresses, the members of the U.S. women’s team have already carved their names in the history books—by demanding that they be treated equally, and by bringing the justice system to bear on their demand. Their courage is shining a light on a truly maddening and ever-present problem, and will surely inspire countless other American women and girls to action.
Gender Discrimination: Pervasive in Every Sector
Institutionalized gender discrimination is everywhere in the United States, from the most public and glamorous lives to the most private and invisible ones. Considerable fame, as the U.S. women’s soccer team arguably enjoys, is no protection from its ills. For the team’s members, gender discrimination looks like paychecks as low as 38 cents for every dollar paid to members of the men’s team; fewer resources used to promote their games; less development support; and inferior playing, training, and travel conditions. Nor do famous women performers experience any exceptions: for the women in Hollywood, it’s the notoriously horrific “casting couch,” being blacklisted for refusing to sleep with a director, and finding out that you are being paid less than a male lead through a Sony hack (Charlize Theron) or a USA Today article (Michelle Williams). For the women at NASA, it looks like canceling an all-women space walk because the suits were designed for men.
And if women who are in the limelight experience no exceptions to gender discrimination, then those the farthest from the limelight often experience its most brutal effects. Consider, for instance, women who work on farms, who break their backs to put food on our tables, doing so with few if any health and safety protections, all the while fending off harassment and assaults from supervisors (and, if they aren’t citizens, facing dangers of deportation if they report the harassment). In female-dominated sectors, the problem of gender discrimination is often worse than in sectors with a stronger balance, and even more pervasive. Consider home health aides and other domestic workers, who take home utterly meager pay, working around the clock, with no breaks or time off, with no health insurance or retirement security. For teachers, it looks like having to strike to make enough money to feed their families and pay the rent. For women in the restaurant and hospitality industry, it means tolerating flirting, and often much worse, for the sake of tips, taking the lower-paying daytime shifts because you can’t find child care for your kids overnight, and relying on subminimum wages, as low as $2.13 an hour.
Gender Discrimination’s Longstanding Structural Roots
Institutionalized discrimination is so baked into America’s systems precisely because our country was built on it. And not just gender discrimination: all along, discrimination has been structurally hardwired into our nation along every point of identity difference. It follows, then, that gender discrimination’s effects are intensified whenever women’s identities include other oppressed identities and experiences. These intensifications manifest themselves today in, for instance, black women having to work “twice as hard to get half as much.” It means they face higher rates of preventable diseases, are “over-policed and under-protected,” and are vastly underrepresented in the halls of political and economic power. For Latinas, it looks like 53 cents for every dollar paid to white men, discrimination when visiting a doctor or health clinic, an ever-growing wealth gap, and high high school drop out rates.
Gender discrimination’s effects are intensified whenever women’s identities include other oppressed identities and experiences.
For Native American women, it means being paid 58 cents for every dollar paid to a white man, while also suffering some of the highest rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in the United States, while working to keep your family together and stop the suicides and substance abuse epidemic in your community. For Asian-American women, it looks like fighting against the myth of the “model minority,” while addressing the ways nationality and immigration status produce inequities in pay. For women with disabilities, it includes employment discrimination connected to overcoming both stereotypes and inaccessible workplaces. For trans women, it means facing employment discrimination, struggling for the very right to exist in public, serve in the military, or use the restroom that matches who you are. Of course this list is not exhaustive, in terms of who is impacted by discrimination, and doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of its effects on economic stability, safety, and well-being.
Fighting to Care, Fighting for Change
For most women in America, institutionalized gender discrimination also looks like this: No paid family leave to care for yourself or your loved ones; no affordable child care options that give you peace of mind that your children are well-cared for; no accountability for the person who harassed or raped you; and no access to reproductive freedom. It means lower pay than your male counterparts, with barriers to even learn that you’re being paid unequally, and mountains to climb to remedy it if you do. It looks like moms demanding action on gun control, only to have NRA-bought legislators vote to arm teachers rather than protect students. It looks like reporting to male CEOs, who in turn report to mostly male boards of directors. It looks like hiding your tears and suppressing your anger. And now, apparently, it looks like having to “keep quiet” when you score a goal—and not scoring too many of them, at that.
The USWNT is fighting hard on the field as they score goal after goal (which, by the way, they deserve to celebrate and be celebrated for). But even more impressive than their remarkable talent is how they’ve used the World Cup—and their platforms on the world stage more broadly—to stand up and say “no more.” No more not just to unequal pay: no more to institutionalized gender discrimination.
Winning a soccer game requires teamwork, strategy, patience, determination, perseverance, and knowing when to strike. It’s not so different from creating policy and culture change.
Winning a soccer game requires teamwork, strategy, patience, determination, perseverance, and knowing when to strike. It’s not so different from creating policy and culture change. With an assist from the women’s team, women across the country are well prepared to work together—on defense and offense; on the turf, from the bench, and in the stands—toward the goal of true equality and justice for women. That’s a victory that we shouldn’t take for granted.
Cover photo: Alex Morgan of the USA celebrates with teammates after scoring her team’s eighth goal during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France group F match between USA and Thailand at Stade Auguste Delaune. Source: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images