Women Athletes Take the Lead On Equal Pay
When it comes to gender and sport, not all wins are created equal.
"It's a very interesting kind of space for you when you talk about winning prize money, and the prize money is not the same as the man that's standing next to you on the podium," Jessi Miley-Dyer, ex-pro surfer and current World Surf League vice president, said at Fortune's 2019 Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Tuesday.
Miley-Dyer was part of a small group of female professional surfers who worked to bring pay equity to their sport. It was a multi-year strategy that paid off spectacularly in 2018, when the World Surf League (WSL) agreed to become the first U.S.-based sports organization of any type to offer equal pay for every competitor, regardless of gender, around the globe.
It felt like they were part of a bigger movement, said Miley-Dyer.
"There are so many women in the world now that are fighting for those things [pay equity]. And we really wanted to be like a leader in the space," she said.
Miley-Dyer turned out to be an unexpected advocate: "For me as an ex-pro surfer, to be here and be telling you that surfing of all the sports is a leader in gender equality…I would have laughed at you if you told me that when I was a kid."
Alysia Montaño, the Olympian and seven-time USA 800 meter champion, understands how this kind of slow, patient advocacy can and should work.
Montaño, who became widely known as the "pregnant runner" after she ran a USA Track & Field qualifying round at 34 weeks, risked her sponsorship and legal action when the then Nike-paid athlete cooperated with a New York Times story that told the truth: Pregnant athletes lost their paychecks. It took two years before the Fortune 40 Under 40 honoree was willing to talk on the record. "There was the nondisclosure agreement, but I knew the conversation could open doors in terms of equality and maternal health," she said.
On stage, Montaño was unsparing in her recollection of the risks she took to keep getting paid.
After her abdominal muscles split post-partum, she had to tape them just to compete. She was also a breastfeeding mother. "I'm the one that's going to be feeding my family and the family that I started," she said. "It was a space of loneliness, of space, of darkness."
When asked what fans and supporters could do to support equity in professional sports, Montaño said everyone could speak up.
"You know, this is why we need seats at the table, because, you know, when we have our voices heard, we ultimately band together and we make those voices amplified and louder," said Montaño. She added that the employee walkout at Nike's Oregon headquarters to protest the allegations of the abuse of track star Mary Cain was an inspiration.
"I think one of the greatest things [I've seen] was the employees at Nike yesterday," she said. "They have their paychecks on the line. This is their job. This is exactly what I was fighting for."