Wimbledon, the (Women's) World Cup, and Gender Equality

The United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup so
The United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Sunday, July 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

My wife and I were among the more than 25 million Americans who watched the final match of the Women's World Cup in July, Skyping all the while with our soccer-fanatic son who was abroad. That's more viewers than any men's soccer game has ever received in the United States -- more than any game of the recently completed NHL finals or all but one of the NBA finals.

Afterwards, Zachary, our son, had just two words on his Facebook page update. "Carli Lloyd" -- referring, of course, to the team captain, who had scored two goals by the time many fans had found their seats at the stadium, and a hat trick before halftime.

Four days later, I sat in a subway car that was crammed with exulting teenage girls, shouting with such joy at having seen the stars in the ticker tape parade through New York's "Canyon of Heroes" -- the first female athletes to be so honored. And the next day, we watched Serena Williams, surely the greatest female tennis player in history, and possibly the most dominant single athlete ever in any sport, win again at Wimbledon.

What a week for gender equality, huh?

Let's compare the two for a moment. At Wimbledon, the male and female champions played on the same courts, received the same massive paycheck (over $2.9 million each), which was handed to each of them by the Duke of Kent, the president of the All-England club.

You probably remember the money story. In 1973, tennis great Billie Jean King led a successful campaign to get equal pay for male and female players at the U.S. Open. It took Wimbledon another 34 years to come around, but they did.

By contrast, gender equality in soccer languishes in the late 20th century model: women are "tolerated" officially, institutionally, but they get nowhere near the credit they deserve.

For one thing, the playing field was decidedly uneven. The entire World Cup tournament was played in turf fields, not grass fields. Women's teams protests that turf fields invariably lead to more injuries went unheeded by the FIFA officials.

And the "paying field" was even more uneven. The U.S. team received $2 million for winning the tournament. Two years ago, Germany received $35 million for winning the men's tournament. In fact, the U.S. men's team received $9 million -- and they didn't even make the quarterfinals! Overall, FIFA put up 24 times the amount for the men's tournament than it did for the women's.

And one last indignity. The president of FIFA, the incomparably corrupt Sepp Blatter, didn't even bother to show up at the final match, a snub that would be unthinkable in the men's game. No prevarication about how his resignation and scandal-ridden organization might "distract" from the proceedings could soften that blow.

Yet what we learned on the field was exactly what companies and other organizations have already learned as they recruit, retain and promote greater numbers of women.

Did you notice that when Abby Wambach entered the game in the 79th minute, Carli Lloyd walked calmly over to her and put the captain's armband on their former captain, honoring Wambach as the leader through the transition since the 1999 championship team? And did you notice that after the game, Wambach took the armband off, and put it, instead, on the arm of 40-year-old Christie Rampone, who came on in the 86th minute, the last active player link to that 1999 team?

And who could fail to notice Wambach, as the final whistle blew on the U.S. championship, ran over to the stands to embrace her wife?

That's what those millions of young girls were celebrating the ticker tape parade. Those are the lessons we all learned -- in our workplaces, our families and our communities, as well as out teams. Diversity is strength. Teamwork wins.

Let's hope the new regime at FIFA needs a far shorter time to realize that gender equality is not a "lofty goal" but a commercial and political imperative. Millions of fans -- and many millions of dollars -- hang in the balance.

(cross-posted at Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), a community for men committed to achieving gender equality in the workplace.)