When we talk about the gender discrimination that our clients face in the workplace, we often talk in terms of leveling the playing field for women: We’re not asking employers to treat female employees better than they treat men, but we do demand – and the law requires – that they treat them equally.
This analogy is uniquely fitting for a recent gender discrimination lawsuit filed by some of the world’s best soccer players against the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). The suit, filed before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in Canada, alleges that CSA and FIFA violated the Ontario Human Rights Code when it decided that men and women will play on different types of fields at the World Cup next year. CSA and FIFA assigned the best fields to the men while relegating female players to less desirable artificial fields. The women bringing the suit include dozens of elite soccer players from across the world.
The allegations in the complaint are striking. They detail a long history of gender discrimination at both CSA and FIFA that includes paying female soccer players less than their male counterparts, failing to place women on the executive board of FIFA for many years—and diminishing the accomplishments of the first woman to join that board by suggesting that her good looks won her the role, encouraging female players to dress in tighter and more feminine uniforms, and suggesting that women are not smart enough to understand the rules of the game.
The complaint also helps explain what’s at stake. It details the differences between natural and artificial fields as well as the downsides and dangers of playing on artificial turf. Games on artificial turf require less aggressive play and create a much greater risk of serious injury due to the hardness of the surface. The complaint notes that all players prefer natural surfaces, and it provides numerous instances of men flatly refusing to play on artificial surfaces. Whereas CSA and FIFA have taken pains (and spent big bucks) to accommodate the preferences of male players, according to the complaint, they have refused to budge when female players have protested field conditions.
The “different but equal” argument that CSA and FIFA advance to justify this disparate treatment devalues the dignity of female players. As the women’s lawyer explains, treating female players like second-class athletes is embarrassing to these organizations and to the sport. Prioritizing men’s sports over women’s sports is nothing new, but it is heartening to see outstanding female players around the globe come together and take a stand for the equality – and the level playing field – that they richly deserve.