What Is U.S. Soccer Getting Wrong About Equal Pay?

Tom Cunningham
VP of People, Dallas Office

In a podcast episode with HR Works, Tom Cunningham shares his perspective on equal pay surrounding the Women's U.S. soccer team.

You can listen to the podcast episode "What is U.S. Soccer Getting Wrong About Equal Pay?" here

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

 Jim Davis:       Hello, everyone and welcome to HR Works, the podcast for HR professionals. We really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to join us. I am the host of HR Works, Jim Davis, and the editor of the HR daily advisor. This podcast aims to put valuable tools and knowledge into the hands and ears of you, the HR professional. Those tools will arm you with the best methods and strategies for attracting, motivating or retaining top talent. 

Jim Davis:       Today we're going to talk about gender pay equality. Specifically with regards to the US women's soccer team's situation. They just won their fourth World Cup victory just about a week ago and there is a pay equality issue in the works and some lawsuits. It's a little bit complicated, but here to discuss pay equality in general and the situation with the US women's soccer team, we have two guests. I'm pleased introduce Tom Cunningham, VP of People at Pariveda. Am I saying that correctly?

Tom Cunningham:      You are. That's close enough. 

Jim Davis:       Excellent. An organization that prides itself on its transparency. He oversees internal learning activities, recruiting, HR functions and office operations, ensuring that their people are supported in their continuous development throughout their journey. Prior to moving into this role at 2017, Tom served as the office managing VP for the New York market. He was responsible for building, growing and managing the local market consulting practice. Tom holds a BA from Yale and an advanced degree in music performance from Westminster Choir College.

Jim Davis:       We're also pleased to introduce our second guest, Charles Bendotti, senior vice president, people and culture of Phillip Morris International. He was the architect behind the global equal salary certification. He has been with Phillip Morris since 1999 when he started as a business analyst. He was named VP of Human Resources Asia in 2012 and was elevated to his current role in 2016. Mr. Bendotti holds a master's degree in international relations, economy and law from the graduate institute of international and development studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and an executive MBA from HUC Paris.

Jim Davis:       Thank you both of you so much for joining us today.

Tom Cunningham:      My pleasure.

Charles Bendotti:        My pleasure as well.

Jim Davis:       So just to introduce the situation, I'm sure most of our listeners will be aware, but the US women's soccer team won their fourth World Cup victory just about 10 days ago and leading up to that victory was a lot of discussion about pay equity and indeed when they won, the whole stadium erupted into people chanting, "Equal pay, equal pay." And those who are not aware, what they're talking about is that, and it's a little complicated, but essentially the men and the women both make very different amounts of money. Indeed they compete in different leagues and there's different bonuses and incentives, so it's not as straight forward as in the US Soccer Federation is paying this team less than that team directly as is often the case in employment issues.

Jim Davis:       But there is something happening. They kind of have a history with this. The women's team, back in March, 2016 filed a wage discrimination complaint against the US Soccer Federation with the EOC. They claimed that the men were paid four times as much and that the women generated more revenue than the men's team in 2015. One of the complications is that every year it's different and it has to do with how far they make it and what they compete in. But that year, they did earn more for the Federation. 

Jim Davis:       In April of 2017, the women's team and the USSF ratified a new collective bargaining agreement that's good until 2021. And it did afford some improvements, but it hasn't seemed to have solved the problem because in February of 2019, the EOC rule that they were allowed to follow suit and the women's team did. Whereas it was just five players initially, all 28 players initiated a proposed class and collective action lawsuit against the USSF.

Jim Davis:       They're alleging discrimination based on sex in violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Incidentally, they filed it on International Women's Day as part of a statement.

Jim Davis:       I did mention the pay is complicated. We don't have to get down to the details, but The Guardian did a great job of running down what the men would have been paid if they had made it this far, which by the way, they never have. And what the women will make. It's a bit of an estimation, but they're saying that each woman will have earned $260,000 and the men would have earned $1,114,000 if they had gotten as far. Clearly those numbers are not the same. So we're just here to discuss what's going on. What do you guys think about it and what do you think about pay equity in general?

Jim Davis:       So I guess the first question is, does that sound like equal pay to you?

CharlesBendotti:         So Charles talking here, I think let's make a very clear statement. It's not equal pay. If the US woman's soccer team would [inaudible 00:00:05:46], they will be paid exactly the same as the men's soccer team. So I think there's no question about it. There is no equality on this one. And I think we need to go straight to the point about it and be very clear what we're talking here. If as you say, if the women's soccer team generate more revenues than the men's soccer team, by default they have to be paid more for that.

CharlesBendotti:         So even not sure that is about equality of salaries there. They should be pay more, as simple as that. And I don't know why we have an issue talking about it. If there's more revenue, more people, more people watching it, you generate more excitement for the population, for the public in general, we should not talk even about equal pay. We should be talking about paying them rightly for what they generate. Here for me, there's no conversation. It's much more than male. And let's answer the question why this is not happening because that the issue.

Jim Davis:       Yeah, that's a really good point. Tom, did you have anything to add? 

Tom Cunningham:      Well, I agree. It is about equal pay and this is not equal pay. I do find it interesting, the idea that part of their argument is based on the revenues generated. That can obviously be a double edged sword. One of the pieces that issue here is that the women are generating far more excitement these days than the men. And so their jerseys are selling faster and the viewing of the final was a record for soccer in the United States. And it's an amazing, I think, achievement of the women's team. I think that this lawsuit really is part of the larger story around equal pay and equity and pay. I think it's no mistake that they filed a suit on International Women's Day, because to some degree it is symbolic.

Tom Cunningham:      As you said, the pay is complicated. And so to unravel all the issues is actually quite difficult. However, the symbolism of women getting paid far less than men for doing not only the same work, but in some ways, in this particular case, doing it in a way that's generating far more excitement and interest and brand recognition and potentially even revenue depending on how it's calculated, I think that's a part of that larger story around inequity in pay for women across the globe and in the United States.

Jim Davis:       Yeah. And I think what you're referring to there is, and for listeners' sake, the USSF did release a statement as to why their pay was not the same. And I don't have it written down exactly here, but essentially they were saying it was because of differing revenue streams, and/or, and that's really important, it was any other reason other than sex.

Jim Davis:       So if you parse that, what they're saying is maybe it's because of different revenue streams and they are different and they've been very different year to year. 2015, the women made more. They haven't always, and that's really complicated because it has a lot to do with where each team is in this very long process of getting to the World Cup. But on the other hand, they're saying, "We have a reason, but we're not going to tell you what it is. It's any reason other than the one that gets us in trouble." And it's just something I think we're all very familiar hearing from large organizations. That second part of that quote is actually straight from the law, where there's language very similar to that. So they just go in and say, "Okay, what does the law say? Oh, okay, that's what we're doing."

Jim Davis:       What advice would you give the woman's team going forward? Let's start with you, Charles.

CharlesBendotti:         Well, the first one is about this fluctuation in revenues. There's nothing different between a woman's team and a male's team. I'm French. So last year, exactly a year ago, the French team won the World Cup. I'm not sure they will be able to win the World Cup every single four years. So there will always be a fluctuation revenues even for the best team in the world, male team. So I don't understand this argument. You cannot pay people because one day they bring you money and the day after they don't bring you money. If you will apply the same logic to us, so that in one day I will make a million dollars, in one day I will be in the streets. And I don't understand this argument about the fluctuating revenues to justify the difference in pay.

CharlesBendotti:         Because all sport people, not only sport people, I mean every single [inaudible 00:10:34] in the world, sometime you have better performance. Sometime you have less good performance. But we make sure that in the longterm, you pay right. And that's the argument I'm still struggling with because I think that the wrong argument. So to answer your question, Jim, if I would be one of the player from the a woman's team, I would ask them what is the rationale behind that? How do you explain it? Why our situation is different than every single sport people in the world, being male or female? That I don't understand the logic. So that would be the first one I will dig and try to understand why they are coming with that because I don't think they can stay in that position for a long

Jim Davis:       That's a really good point. It's nice to hear that particular issue addressed because I pored through ... I wrote an article about this just the other day. I pored through probably 25 articles, trying to understand what's going on and no one was really adequately addressing that statement. Short though of maybe from the USSF. Tom, do you have anything to add to that?

Tom Cunningham:      Well, I'm not sure I could give good advice to the women. They're, I'm sure, well advised and it's a complicated scenario to be suing essentially your employer. But my words would just be encouragement. I think that they have a moment here to really raise attention and awareness of the ways that the league functions. And I think that some degree of transparency and visibility into these things would be healthy. And again that does cut both ways of course, when you expose things like collective bargaining agreements, which I know the Washington Post got ahold of it and The Guardian analyzed, some of those things are kept private for reasons of negotiation. But the more transparency, I think, then the more likely the outcome will be something that's more fair, at least from the outside.

Jim Davis:       I think that there's a sort of a tendency ... I talk about transparency with a lot of people because it's so important and I think there's a tendency in people in general to, when they're met with a challenge to close down and to not share. And I think that really continues in leadership in organizations and it doesn't matter the size of the organization. People take that with them and then they express it and then you add to that legal concerns. Everyone's so afraid of getting sued. That you have so many situations, not just this one, where people in power or people that have large organizations just will not do what we all know is right or will not say the thing we want to hear. You have examples of people just not saying sorry because they're afraid of the liability that that will cause. 

Jim Davis:       How do you each individually approach being transparent with those kinds of stakes? Perhaps you could start, Tom.

Tom Cunningham:      Sure. Well, transparency is a very important part of our culture in general. There's a lot about our organization that already is transparent. So for example, our salaries are completely transparent in our firm. Everyone knows what everyone else makes. The mechanisms by which decisions are made around promotion and salary are also all transparent. We publish all of our financial information to our employees. We're actually an employee owned company. So it means that there is a financial stake for employees in the company and they are very interested in the financial performance.

Tom Cunningham:      So a lot of information that isn't always shared throughout a company like ours is shared at our company. So when we are faced with a challenge like you just described, Jim, where there's maybe someone's unhappy and they're asking questions that are difficult for us to face down, we try to lean into that transparency and be honest and open and share what's really happening behind the scenes and the reasons why decisions were made. Obviously that's not always a popular thing. It doesn't necessarily solve problems just by sharing why the problems came to be. But it does, I think reinforce our culture of being open and trusting each other.

Jim Davis:       Charles, do you have anything to add to that?

CharlesBendotti:         Yeah, I mean not much. I think Tom say it all. Obviously we are operating in a different environment because, first we are a public company. Many of our people are shareholders but this is a public company and we operate all over the world. So we have more than 80,000 people. But I think the principle that Tom just explained, exactly what's need to happen regardless of the size and where you operate in the world. Now what we do slightly different probably than what Tom is doing in this organization is for us, we truly believe in full meritocracy. So more than individual, what really matter is what is your position, what is your job and we look at grade and remuneration mechanisms linked with that. And this is fully transparent. 

CharlesBendotti:         If it would be me, completely, I would have no issue to have the salaries of people, even from Phillip Morris, because this is a job and if you get the same job then you receive the same remuneration. As simple as that. Obviously in different culture, different countries, you cannot do that by law, but the principle are those ones. Without transparency, then you generate an environment where there is no trust, and then you create wrong perceptions. So transparency is the only way to go.

CharlesBendotti:         Now, yes, that may generate some very difficult conversation time to time, but if we don't face those conversation, nothing will never change. So I prefer full transparency and having difficult conversations and explain the why than to hide it, to avoid the conversation because you know that if you do that, the boomerang will come back one day and you're the one. So the more transparent you are, the better it is for everybody.

Jim Davis:       What about the USSF? How would you each individually, what advice would you give them or how would you suggest that they go forward?

CharlesBendotti:         I would only encourage them to do exactly what we did at PMI. Go for an equal salary certification in a very independent manner. I think we have been doing at PMI, and I'm very curious to learn from Tom and his company what they are doing. But for many, many years we say we are fully transparent and we promise you we are doing our internal check to make sure that we are paying male and female, not only male and female, everybody equally actually. Then you can say it. But at the end of the day, it's done by yourself and when you go, that's why we decided to go with the equal salary certification because that's done by an independent third party. In that case, PWC. Now I don't think you can find more objective and independent auditors than PWC and they go and they do it for you on your behalf. and they have to protect their own reputation so it give trust to the entire organization, this is a transparent, to come back to your previous question, and fair process. There's nothing to hide about it. 

CharlesBendotti:         So third party certification, if it's done by the proper third party, this is the best way you can go. So for the US Federation, I would encourage them if they have nothing to hide, then go for an independent review of what you are doing of your practices. And it will tell you, as they told us, PWC, sometimes you discover that there is issues that need to be solved. And the learning we had more than the certification is the trust and dialogue that has generated to have a third party. Not only because, as I say, of the quality of the certification, but more importantly, people feel comfortable to talk to someone, which is not your own players actually. You create a space of free speech where issues can be raised and solved. It's a safe environment. 

CharlesBendotti:         So that will be my only advice. It's not only to the Federation, but to every single organization in the world. Join the movement. If you really want to walk the talk then talking should be ... We talk enough. I mean what people are looking for is about acting. So it's all about acting. I mean, talking is too easy and I think the world is fed up with people talking. They want to see act and reality and that's what I will encourage them to do. As simple as that.

Jim Davis:       Thank you. Tom, do you, do you agree?

Tom Cunningham:      Ah, well, it's a hard question. If I were to think about the way that soccer and the USSF and the way it functions, if I were to think about re -imagining that so as to really guarantee that there was equity, it would be a pretty radical re -imagining. I mean, I would wonder what are the core values of the Soccer Federation? And what are the core values around soccer being played professionally in the United States? Where it does all that money come from and where does it all go? Is it really that all the ... For instance, in order for it to really function well as a value based organization, the men and the women's teams would have to not be pitted against each other. They would have to be working together towards some common goal around fostering the values that animate soccer and why it's important and excellence and teamwork and leadership and all the other things that are on display when great teams play. 

Tom Cunningham:      And that would be a complicated thing to reimagine. There's so much money at stake. I mean, all that money, you'd have to think about the way that the players are compensated and in what way would that be fair? And I think one of the biggest issues, and this is true, I think in many sports and environments ... Because there's so much money at stake and because fairness is such a difficult thing to really nail down, if you were to say, let's say every player on both professional teams got paid the same amount, let's say. And let's say that amount was something that everyone decided was some reasonable amount. Let's say it was $250,000 or something like that. I'm not sure that's reasonable or not. Where does all of that extra money go? Does it go into something that they can all agree is important to make the world a better place? Because it certainly shouldn't go into the pockets of the owners. It shouldn't go into the pockets of the advertisers. It should go somewhere that really makes the world, if they're really generating that much revenue, that makes the world a better place. Maybe through fostering soccer internationally or soccer or other important things to women's leadership development in the United States. There's lots of places where that money could go that maybe isn't just into pockets.

Jim Davis:       That's a good answer. I'm thinking about other sports. Every year we have the NBA draft and the NFL draft and it's not something I get that involved in, but some of my friends do. And part of the reporting is these contracts for these individual players. So one guy gets a $115 million to do five years, another guy gets $20 million to do six years. It's just in any American sport that I can think of, equality isn't even a concern. Not even amongst teammates on the same team, nevermind between specific gender based teams.

Jim Davis:       So it seems like this whole thing is going heavily against the grain of sports in general. And I'm sure that's contributing to this resistance we're seeing. So we talked a little bit about gender equality. We talked a little bit about merit based pay. What about like a combo deal where they all get paid the same and then maybe they can make a little bit more based on how they've done either as a team or individually? Does that sound fair?

CharlesBendotti:         It's a very good question. I'm not sure they need to be paid the same. I mean, especially in sport. It's very easy to identify the revenues. So I would go for the law of the markets, as simple as that. I mean if there's higher demand than offers, then the price will go up. So I don't see the need of paying exactly the same in sport. I think we need to pay them based on the value they provide to the players and to the public in general.

CharlesBendotti:         We shouldn't pay less. I think the common denominator cannot be the lowest one. I think the common denominator has to be the highest one. And if women generate more, then they should get more. There's no reason why we shouldn't pay them at the same as male if they can generate more on this one. I have no issue with that. No issue at all with that. It's the same as in the company. In the company, not every single [inaudible 00:24:24] has the same value. I mean the CEO is paid more than others. And that's fair because it's not about the CEO as a person. It's about the position. It's about the job. And that's what really matter is what is the job, what is the position and not what is the incumbent. And I think that's what we need to do is to remove the personality of the person out of the equation and look at the job and only talk about the job because that's what really matter. The gender, who's occupying the job is temporary. It's not important. It's the job that really matter. And not all the jobs are the same.

Jim Davis:       Great point.

Jim Davis:       Tom, I think you already made your feelings clear in your last answer. I think I'm going to end it here, but this has really been great. I really appreciate both of you coming. I think we've offered a lot of interesting aspects of this issue for our listeners, so thanks so much for coming along.

Tom Cunningham:      Yeah, it's a pleasure.

CharlesBendotti:         Big pleasure, Jim. Thank you. And nice meeting you, Tom.

Tom Cunningham:      Yes. Very nice to meet you, Charles.

Jim Davis:       Listeners, we are always interested in suggestions you might have for what HR Works should cover next. Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter at HR Works Podcast with any thoughts or concerns you have about the podcast in general, or if you just want to say hi. Thanks for listening. This is Jim Davis with HR Works.

Tom Cunningham

About the Author

As VP of People, Tom Cunningham oversees internal learning activities, recruiting, HR functions, and office operations, ensuring our people are supported in their continuous development throughout their journey at Pariveda. Prior to moving into this role in 2017, Tom served as the Office Managing Vice President for the New York market, responsible for building, growing and managing the local market consulting practice.

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