In a dazzling display of skill, the U.S. women’s soccer team outscored the opposition a combined 16-0 in its first two games in the Women’s World Cup. The opening victory over Thailand (a 13-0 win) broke the World Cup record for largest margin of victory in a game and most goals scored in a single match — men’s or women’s.
This decisive win not only showcased the athletes’ impressive talent, but it also provided evidence supporting their demand for equal pay, training and traveling conditions. In a lawsuit filed in March, 28 members of the team alleged that U.S. Soccer has “stubbornly refused to treat its female employees who are members of the WNT equally to its male employees who are members of the MNT.” This mistreatment occurs despite the fact that the women’s record, with three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals, is far better than the men’s. The women have also brought in more revenue than the men’s squad.
But there is an area where the women remain severely outmatched, one that helps explain the disparity in treatment of the men’s and women’s teams: the boardroom. And only by changing this will female athletes be treated equally.
Women are underrepresented in decision-making positions in sports, from top to bottom. The International Olympic Committee has never had a female president, and only 11 percent of all accredited coaches at the 2016 Rio Olympics were women. The United States Olympic Committee likewise did not have a female president for its first 100 years of operation, only ending the male line of succession in 2000. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, eight women served as coaches for Team USA, in contrast to 58 men.
The overwhelmingly male leadership in soccer stems from the widespread belief that physical competitions showcase masculine traits and are the natural domain of men; therefore, women are seen as inherently less competent at all levels of sport with negative repercussion reverberating throughout the sport.
Men actually did not originally oversee women’s sport. Because male leaders were disinterested in — and often disgusted by — women’s athletic endeavors, female physical educators assumed responsibility and organized women’s competitions in the 1920s. These women worried that the men’s model of sport, which prioritized competition for a small number of participants, harmed athletes. They therefore introduced modified versions of the games for their female charges in a format that prioritized participation for all.
Men’s and women’s athletic programs therefore developed along separate paths. The NCAA, founded in 1906, was simply not interested in overseeing women’s championships for almost the entire first century of its existence. And so, women founded other organizations through which to compete. In 1971, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was formed to administer intercollegiate championships for female athletes. The AIAW oversaw championships in a range of sports, including basketball, field hockey, lacrosse and soccer. Although Title IX created a boom in female participation on the field of play, it somewhat perversely led to male-dominated governing bodies taking control of women’s sports.
After first filing an unsuccessful lawsuit that challenged the legality of Title IX, the NCAA voted in 1981 to add Division I championships for women. But bringing women’s sports into the NCAA cost women leadership over their own sports. Women have not held a majority of leadership positions in college sports since. By 2018, only six women served as NCAA executives, compared with 11 men, and women held only 12 percent of Division I athletic director positions and made up only 40.1 percent of the coaches of Division I women’s teams.
The percentage of women in leadership roles plummeted for several reasons. When the NCAA added championships for women’s sports, most member institutions opted to send both their male and female teams to the NCAA competitions rather than maintain membership in separate governing bodies. This led to the demise of the AIAW in 1982 and consequently diminished the number of female executives in college sports. With the consolidation of authority under the NCAA, most schools then combined their men’s and women’s athletic departments, placing men at the helm as athletic directors.
Title IX also forced schools to provide more resources to women’s teams, which included higher-paid coaches. While women coached the majority of women’s teams during the 1970s, as the jobs became more lucrative, men started to fill them. Female coaches today also cite discrimination in hiring practices, gender bias in career advancement, persistence of stereotypes and work-life balance as additional obstacles.
Men have largely been responsible for organizing women’s soccer as well. FIFA was formed in 1904 to oversee men’s soccer. All 12 of its presidents have been men. In 2013, more than a century into its existence, it elected the first woman to its executive committee. Indicative of FIFA’s view of women as inferior leaders, then-president Joseph “Sepp” Blatter marked the occasion by shouting, “Say something ladies. You are always speaking at home, now you can say something here.” Given this blatant misogyny, it’s unsurprising that the FIFA Council still only counts six women among its 37 members.
U.S. Soccer has historically shared a similarly negative view of women as leaders. It took seven decades for the federation to elect Marty Mankamyer, the first woman on its executive committee, in 1984. She described her initial interaction with U.S. Soccer as a “nightmare” and recalled, “There were no leagues, no national team for women, no plans for one.” U.S. Soccer debuted a team in 1985, but the notion of women’s inferiority persisted.
Despite the U.S. women’s team’s greater successes on the field, women remain largely outnumbered in the organization. “I don’t remember one senior woman in the organization that you would deal with on a daily basis in a position that was making decisions,” said former player Julie Foudy. That trend persists, as only six women served on the 18-person executive committee in 2017.
This disparity also extends into coaching. Seven of the nine teams in the National Women’s Soccer League have male head coaches, and 22 of 28 assistant coaches are also male. By contrast, there are no female coaches in Major League Soccer. That the U.S. women’s team has had more male head coaches than female is particularly glaring.
American women soccer players have proven more successful than their male counterparts by a wide margin, but they are still viewed as less equipped to hold positions of authority. This discrepancy is rooted in the belief that sports are fundamentally a men’s world. Society assumes men are superior in all elements of sport, from playing to coaching to organizing.
This gender imbalance has systemic repercussions. With female leaders nonexistent, powerless or considered inept, it makes it harder to prevent and address gender discrimination. Studies suggest that while men typically support the idea of gender equality, they rarely implement policies to actually enforce gender parity.
Even more significantly, gender imbalances in the hierarchy of sports governing bodies and sports organizations send a message about women’s place in sport. They reaffirm the belief that men are inherently more qualified and better suited for all aspects of sports, from the executive suite to the playing field. These male hierarchies limit opportunities for women, both in terms of breaking into leadership and earning equal treatment as athletes.
And without women in decision-making positions, female athletes do not have advocates to combat this ingrained bias. More female presidents are needed to help counter setups that prioritize and promote men’s events more than women’s events. More female executives are needed to help challenge the belief that the women’s game is inherently inferior to the men’s. More female coaches are needed to help push back against the assumption that men are naturally more sport-oriented and better able to map strategy than women.
Only with more female decision-makers will female athletes and women’s sports gain equal treatment. Otherwise, they may continue to languish, no matter how successful the players.