One of the most shocking moments in the recent Women’s World Cup came after the final, when the head of the Spanish soccer federation kissed one of the victorious Spanish players – first on the cheeks (ok – it’s European) but then on her lips (not ok without consent – European or not). In the locker room immediately afterwards, the player said “I didn’t like it.” And this moment highlights just how much further the women soccer players have to go in terms of achieving equity with their male counterparts – on the field and off. It also provides a reminder to employers generally that equity in the workplace encompasses many things.

In addition to continuing issues of sexual harassment, many of you may be aware of the controversy over pay equality between the US women’s and men’s national soccer teams. The women’s team, although more successful than the men’s team, brought suit against the US Soccer Federation. This resulted in an historic settlement that equalized pay between the women’s and men’s teams. Victory, right?

But a recent New York Times article, The Curse Stalking Women’s Soccer, caught my eye. It discussed the “knee injury epidemic” that had afflicted many of the sport’s female stars leading up to the World Cup. As someone who has torn both ACLs – one while skiing (ho-hum) and the other while dancing with my brother-in-law at his wedding (rather more unusual) – I was definitely intrigued, and then unpleasantly surprised by the issues raised.

The article explored possible reasons for this marked recent increase in ACL injuries. Some of the potential contributing factors may be physiological, such as anatomical differences between men’s and women’s knees and hormonal fluctuations that could impact energy and joint laxity. But there are other, non-biological factors that could be more significant. These include more games than before, increased intensity of gameplay, and soccer cleats that are not designed for women’s feet. In addition, the lack of resources for women’s soccer as compared with men’s soccer means fewer travel amenities like chartered flights that provide greater opportunities for rest and recovery, lack of specialized strength and conditioning training, fewer and lower quality support staff (e.g. medical, physiotherapists, nutritionists), and playing fields that are not as well-maintained or utilize less favorable materials (artificial turf). Smaller competitive squads also means that high-profile players get less rest.

Soccer teams are paying attention, and are taking steps to redress many of these issues. Progress may be slow, but it is encouraging that these issues are being recognized. Nonetheless, there are lessons for all employers that can be drawn from this World Cup:

  • Put harassment protections in place for all employees – and that managers all the way to the top are trained to model appropriate behavior and address any issues that they become aware of.
  • Ensure pay equity regardless of gender. Federal and state equal pay laws generally require that employees should receive the same pay for similar jobs under similar circumstances, and that any pay differentials must be based on legitimate factors unrelated to gender.
  • Think beyond pay to the terms and conditions of employment. Ensure that all employees have properly-fitting equipment (if required for the job), adequate training, sufficient support, a safe work environment, and appropriate time for rest and recovery – regardless of gender or any other legally protected personal characteristic.
  • Be sensitive and thoughtful about changing/increased work responsibilities.
  • Do not assume all employees are the same – the needs of one employee may be different than the next. The needs may be related to gender – but they also may not be. Don’t ignore differences that may be legitimately due to female v. male physiology – but at the same time, don’t make assumptions about female v. male capabilities.