More nations ending soccer’s gender wage gap: ‘This could change things’

Why We Wrote This

For years, the U.S. women’s soccer team has accused its federation of gender discrimination. Meanwhile, a handful of other countries’ leagues have been making waves, vowing to pay male and female players the same.

Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters
Brazil's Débora Cristiane de Oliveira, known as Debinha, celebrates a goal against England during a friendly match at Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, England, on Oct. 5, 2019. Brazil has announced equal pay for its men's and women's national soccer teams.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Brazil’s women’s soccer team is a powerhouse, routinely ranked in the top 10 around the world. So it might come as a surprise that for decades, until 1981, Brazilian women weren’t even allowed to play.

Though such explicit sexism has receded, the business of soccer still treats men and women differently, female players say in many countries – especially when it comes to pay. Yet a small but growing cohort of countries is offering their women’s national teams as much as the men’s, which many athletes and commentators view as a major symbolic victory.

The newest members of that club – which includes Australia, New Zealand, Norway, and England – are Brazil and Sierra Leone, which both announced they had equalized pay earlier this month. 

Rashidatu Kamara, who plays for Sierra Leone’s national team, is using her first paycheck since pay was equalized to finish building her parents’ house, and pay school fees for her younger siblings.

“Women in Sierra Leone often stop playing football young because they don’t see a future there,” she says. “This could change things for the generation behind us.”

When she was playing soccer as a child, Rashidatu Kamara never had reason to believe she couldn’t be one of the boys.

From the time she was 8 years old, they welcomed her into pickup games in their neighborhood cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Soon, she was so good that her friends would nearly come to blows about whose side she was going to play for that day.

“They never gave me reason to doubt that a girl could play,” she says.

That came later, when Ms. Kamara was called up to her national team. The first time she represented her country in a tournament abroad, she made $300, a princely sum to the child of a fisherman from a poor neighborhood. But it paled in comparison with the $2,000 the men made each time they put on their green, white, and blue uniforms for an international match.

So when Sierra Leone’s sports ministry announced earlier this month that it was equalizing payment for its men’s and women’s national teams, players like Ms. Kamara greeted the announcement with no small measure of pride.

“Women in Sierra Leone often stop playing football young because they don’t see a future there,” she says. “This could change things for the generation behind us.”

Sierra Leone’s announcement comes on the heels of a similar one by Brazil’s soccer federation in early September. The two countries join a small but growing cohort of countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Norway, and England, to offer their women’s national teams as much as the men for the same work.

In the soccer world, where equality for the women’s game is a bitter and very much ongoing fight, many view the policies as major symbolic victories.

“If we want the women’s game to improve, we have to sow before we can reap – and that means making pay equal” before popularity can be equal, says Usher Komugisha, a Ugandan journalist covering African women’s soccer. “These women stand on the field wearing the flag of their countries just like the men do – there’s no reason not to treat those experiences with equal value.”

Once banned from playing

Equal pay for the Sierra Leonean and Brazilian teams has special resonance in Africa and Latin America, where women’s soccer has been particularly neglected. In one of the world’s greatest soccer powerhouses, Brazil, for instance, women were formally banned from playing, even recreationally, from the 1940s until 1981. Such violent sports as soccer, the law stated, were “not suitable for the female body.” (Similar bans were in place in several European countries until the early 1970s.)

And when the coronavirus pandemic hit Africa in 2020, the Confederation of African Football announced that it was canceling the women’s continental championship. The men’s tournament, meanwhile, was simply postponed.


Courtesy of Rashidatu Kamara
Rashidatu Kamara, a player for Sierra Leone's national women's soccer team, says she hopes pay equity between the men's and women's teams will inspire more girls and women to continue playing. "This could change things for the generation behind us," she says.

It sets an important example when a national football federation puts equality before public opinion at home, says Marília Ruiz, a Brazilian sports commentator and columnist.

“Brazilian society still treats soccer as a male sport,” she says.

At the same time, she and others note that equal pay for national teams is only a small piece of the puzzle in making soccer less sexist. National team pay policies can be a “PR move” to make a country’s football federation look good while deflecting from more systemic problems, says Ms. Komugisha, who advocates for pay equity in women’s soccer in Africa.

Brazil, for example – whose national team is routinely ranked in the world’s top 10 – doesn’t have a domestic professional league. The country’s best players often leave the country to play for European and American leagues, and in 2017, several members of the national squad quit at once, saying they were “exhausted from years of disrespect and lack of support” from the country’s soccer federation.

Fernanda Stulpen played goalkeeper for Brazil’s national team in 2006. She says she never could have imagined a pledge for equalized pay when she was on the team.

“The fact that we received anything at that time already helped so much, since the majority [of women players in Brazil] got nothing,” Ms. Stulpen says. Her biggest hope is that the change in pay can boost the value placed on women’s soccer.

Brazil is also home to arguably the best female soccer player of all time: six-time FIFA player of the year Marta Vieira da Silva, who is also the World Cup’s leading goal scorer – man or woman. Yet Brazilians often refer to her as “Pelé in a skirt,” setting her up as only an echo of the country’s most famous male player.

“The [payments] are equal now, but the conditions to get to them are not,” Ms. Ruiz says.

FIFA prize money

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to truly equal pay is FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, which doles out prize money for global tournaments like the World Cup. In 2018, the federation set aside $400 million in prize money for teams participating in the men’s World Cup, including $38 million that went directly to France, the winner. By contrast, FIFA offered $30 million in prize money for the Women’s World Cup the following year. The champions, the United States, received $4 million, about 10% of the men’s takings. FIFA has argued that the discrepancy results from the difference in revenue.         

“I think sometimes FIFA can be a device for [national] federations to explain progress or lack thereof,” says Brenda Elsey, professor of history at Hofstra University in New York and co-host of the sports and feminism podcast “Burn It All Down.” FIFA’s lack of support for the women’s game, she says, makes it easy for member countries to follow suit.

Part of the problem, many say, is that soccer’s powerful governing bodies remain largely a boys’ club. The president of FIFA has never been a woman, and the organization named its first female secretary-general, Senegalese diplomat Fatma Samoura, only four years ago. Meanwhile, only three of FIFA’s 211 member states currently have a national soccer federation run by a woman. Two of them are the United States and Turks and Caicos Islands.
The third is Sierra Leone.
The Sierra Leonean association’s president, Isha Johansen, “has been championing women and girls’ football for a long time,” says Ms. Komugisha, the Ugandan commentator and activist.  

So it wasn’t a surprise, Ms. Komugisha says, to see Sierra Leone step out in front of the field in terms of equalizing pay.

For Ms. Kamara, the team’s first payment of $2,000 was more than anything she’d ever seen. She’s using it, she says, to finish building her parents’ house and to pay the school fees of her younger siblings.

“I tell women to be successful in this game, you have to eat, sleep, breathe football. It is about your passion. The money isn’t everything,” she says.

“But the money is helpful too.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.