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Women Athletes Are Leading The Fight For Gender Equality On And Off The Field

In her new book Money, Power, Respect: How Women in Sports are Shaping the Future of Feminism, author Macaela MacKenzie shows how women are using sports as a platform for change

Photo: Basic Books

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The first time I truly understood the transformative power of sports was when I crossed the finish line of the 2001 Chicago Marathon, my first attempt at the distance. 

I decided to run a marathon on a whim. Up until that point, my longest run was six miles. But I was curious. What if I tried? Over 16 weeks of training, I pushed my body to run more than I ever thought was possible. Before each long run, I was anxious, wondering if I could actually cover the mileage. But each week, I finished the run amazed by the human body. 

More surprisingly, training for a marathon transformed how I saw myself. Despite playing sports most of my life, I didn’t consider myself an athlete and definitely not a runner. Marathon training helped me reframe who I thought I was and what I believed I was capable of. More than physical fitness, I gained confidence and resiliency. I learned how to problem solve and how to believe in myself.

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The Transformative Power of Sport

Throughout history, we’ve witnessed the transformative power of sports—in ourselves, in our communities, and in society—and the way it can disrupt the status quo and lead to sociocultural change. In 1973, tennis champ Billie Jean King beat former world number one player Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, the ultimate showdown that proved women weren’t the weaker sex. When Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 passed, it opened the floodgates for girls to participate in sports and paved the path to future careers in the C-suite. In 2019, U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) players sued US Soccer for gender discrimination, a fight that resonated so broadly that the team was met with chants of “Equal Pay” upon willing their historic fourth World Cup title. 

Sports is a microcosm of society. Women athletes fight the same systemic bias and discrimination that women experience every day—underinvestment, misogyny and misogynoir, and hyper-sexualization. But sports are also a laboratory where we can challenge norms about gender roles, capability, identity, and worth. 

Women athletes not only offer a unique perspective to understand the problem of gender inequality but also a model for how to solve it, one that the rest of us can use. That’s what journalist Macaela MacKenzie argues in her new book Money, Power, Respect: How Women in Sports are Shaping the Future of Feminism (out June 27). “There isn’t a single fact of the fight for women’s equality that isn’t currently playing out in the world of sports, where equal opportunity and equal pay are impossible to separate,” she writes. 

A former senior editor at Glamour, MacKenzie has built a career out of covering women’s equality through the lens of sports, women’s health, and the gender gap. She draws on her deep knowledge and exclusive interviews with athletes—including Allyson Felix, Megan Rapinoe, Billie Jean King, and Cecé Telfer—to tell the story of how women athletes have been left behind and how they are reclaiming their power alongside money and respect. 

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Penalties and Promise

Like its title, the book is divided into three parts. Each chapter is firmly rooted in the stories of women in sports before zooming out to examine the broader implications in society and the ways athletes are redefining solutions. 

The Money section paints a stark picture of how women athletes are short-changed, from salaries—for every dollar the highest-paid NBA player makes, the highest-paid WNBA player makes half a cent—to investment and sponsorship—only an estimated seven percent of the global sports sponsorship market goes to women. MacKenzie expertly dissects the scaffolding that holds these disparities in place and the convoluted ways that those in power make it seem like it’s women’s fault they are underpaid. 

For instance, the motherhood penalty is one of the biggest factors contributing to the gender pay gap. From the get-go, becoming a parent decreases a woman’s value in the workplace and society but it increases men’s value. Without support like paid leave, childcare, and lactation facilities, women must take time away from work, losing earnings and wage growth potential. For athletes, their body is integral to their career. Stories from Alysia Montanño, Kara Goucher, Allyson Felix, and others illustrate how parenthood puts women athletes in a particularly precarious position. 

MacKenzie argues that maintaining the pay gap comes down to power. In the second section of the book, she highlights how women athletes are renegotiating power dynamics to build better systems for all athletes. They’re harnessing their collective voice, climbing the leadership ladder, and simply showing up in the athletic arena when they aren’t always welcome. She draws on examples from the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team, WNBA, and USWNT and track and field athletes like Cecé Telfer and Gwen Berry. She explores new models that put power in the hands of women such as name, image, and likeness deals and women-backed ventures like Angel City FC in the National Women’s Soccer League.

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The Final Puzzle Piece

The last section tackles respect, which MacKenzie calls “the final piece of the equity puzzle.” She outlines the ways society puts a ceiling on women’s potential. The media objectifies and sexualizes women athletes, claiming that champions like Lindsey Vonn and Danica Patrick are successful only because of their looks, not their athleticism. Society qualifies women’s achievements as “good for a girl,” leaning into the tired argument that women are naturally inferior to men.

Time and again, MacKenzie presents facts and statistics, building an impossible-to-ignore case for investing in women and closing the pay gap. Not doing so leaves money on the table in sports and across industries. Companies with more women serving on the board of directors outperform companies with less representation, achieving 84 percent return on sales and 60 percent return on invested capital. If women entrepreneurs received the same investment as men, the global economy would increase by three-to-six percent. 

Yet, despite the evidence, women continue to be relegated to the role of “second-class citizens.” 

Money, Power, Respect shows that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done but there is a path forward, one led by women athletes. Women athletes are unique because of their platform and influence. As they continue to change hearts and minds, they’re prepping the rest of us to take on the fight for gender equality.

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