(In a new series called “Pro Day” Women Talk Sports contributor Kayla McCulley explores career related topics and talks with female sports executives who share thoughts on professional success.)
Standing triumphant atop the podium and striding proudly into Olympic stadium, women from around the globe achieved unprecedented levels of success at the recent London Olympics. It was an historic Games for the daughters of Title IX, with American women claiming 58 medals, better than all but three countries’ total hauls.
Yet these accomplishments must not be a final exclamation point on two weeks of competition but rather a reminder that women still have ground to gain in sport, particularly for females in sports business. The currency of salary does not equal the currency of Olympic gold.
Yesterday, Sports Business Journal published findings of a survey sent to upper-level executives across professional teams in the MLB, MLS NBA, NFL and NHL, league offices and agencies. The sample included respondents at a manager level or higher. I think you can see where this is heading.
Not only was there a dearth of female respondents who identified their title as “Other C-level (CFO, CMO, etc.),” “Executive or senior VP level,” or “VP level,” but results showed that men earned about 30 percent more than women in base salary and 40 percent more in total compensation, regardless of attributes such as tenure or advanced degrees. At the director and manager levels, where a measurable sample size was recorded and roles are most comparable, men out-earn women on median total compensation $105,000 to $85,000 and $65,000 to $55,000, respectively. More than any other factor – title, responsibilities and education– gender had the greatest impact on pay.
The gender gap is certainly not news and numbers in the sports industry are fairly consistent with differences observed in the overall workforce. For women in sports, however, a number of explanatory factors would appear to make the problem more acute than the general workforce. A scarcity of C-level women in professional franchises or league offices makes it difficult for young professionals to gain mentorship or networking opportunities from top-level women. Research consistently shows that women negotiate less than men for higher salaries. As noted by an interviewee in the article, promotions within are typically paid less than recruits from outside the organization.
In my three years as a young sports professional, I will have moved four times in pursuit of internships, graduate studies in sport management and a full-time job next May. This flexibility to relocate becomes harder for women as relationships and motherhood force difficult choices about which partner’s salary and job standing will be the anchor. For both women and men, that sports industry paycheck isn’t likely to win out, at least in the early to mid-career years. As the survey findings show, women are at an even further disadvantage for a male counterpart of equal career standing.
There is certainly no easy fix for minimizing the wage gap. To achieve a more equitable balance, women in sports business ought to take a page from the Olympians who displayed grit and tenacity in their events. Take action in pushing for more standardized salary processes and negotiate for additional pay or benefits when merited. Just like the perfect starts out of the blocks or flip turns that we saw in London, skill in negotiation is a trait that improves with practice.
Among the female classmates in my own graduate sport management program, a fierce work ethic born of an understanding that women are underrepresented in the industry is evident. It will take time, even generations, to populate the front offices of pro franchises and college athletic departments. For women to change their standing now, embrace the role of an underdog and you just might end up a champion.