American Abby Wambach scored more goals than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi combined, and yet, when she retired from football, she left with a mere portion of the income earned by male football legends.
Many justify the discrepancies in pay saying that men’s sports draw more viewers and sponsorships than the women’s do. But in the U.S, men’s national football team has never advanced past the World Cup quarter-finals after they placed third in 1930. Whereas the women’s team has won three World Cups since 1992. The 2015 Women’s World Cup final was the most-watched football game of any kind in U.S history, and yet the players earned four times less than their male counterparts.
Abby was invited last month to deliver the commencement address at Barnard College, an all-women’s liberal arts college in New York. Talking about the gender pay gap and its long-term consequences for women, she reflected on her own experience, and delivered some powerful advice for women.
Abby was a football star since the moment she first kicked a ball. She started playing the sport at the age of four, after one of her sisters decided she wanted to try it. While playing in her first youth football league at age five, she was transferred from the girls’ team to the boys’ after scoring 27 goals in only three games.
During her high school career, she scored 142 goals, including 34 in 1997 alone. The same year she travelled to Beijing, China, as a member of the first American youth football team to ever compete there.
Cited by American newspaper USA Today as one of the nation’s top 10 recruits, Abby decided to accept a full athletic scholarship to attend the University of Florida. She played with the Florida Gators women’s football team, preferring the challenge of joining a less established team over one like North Carolina, with a long history of championship titles.
After university, Abby rose to become a football icon, amassing many awards during her professional career. She holds the world record for the number of international goals scored for both female and male football players with 184 goals and won two Olympic gold medals. She is a six-time winner of the U.S Soccer Athlete of the Year, and also a FIFA Women’s World Cup champion.
Addressing “the 619 badass women” of Barnard’s class of 2018, Abby shared her learnings and emphasised on the importance of teamwork.
She started her speech recounting the night she was honoured with the Icon Award at the 2016 ESPY – an American TV sports award show – shortly after she retired.
Standing on the stage alongside her fellow honorees basketball’s Kobe Bryant and American football’s Peyton Manning, she recalled feeling grateful to be there, thinking “we women had finally made it.”
But then it hit her. While Bryant and Manning were walking away from their sports with big bank accounts – and the freedom that comes with it – she was not.
“I’d spent most of my time during my career the same way I’d spent my time on that ESPY stage. Just feeling grateful” she said. “Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us.”
The feeling of appreciation is ingrained in women from a young age, she said, invoking the lessons of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.
“The message is clear: Don’t be curious, don’t make trouble, don’t say too much or bad things will happen. I stayed on the path out of fear – not of being eaten by a wolf – but of being cut, being benched, losing my pay check.”
We can be grateful, Abby explains, as long as we to recognise our worth and demand what we deserve.
Here are Abby’s four rules for women to be successful in life.
1. Make failure your fuel
No one likes to fail. Women, in particular, take failure really hard. Abby cited Michelle Obama:
“I wish that girls could fail as well as men do and be okay. Because let me tell you watching men fail up—it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to see men blow it and win. And we hold ourselves to these crazy, crazy standards.”
Failure, Abby explains, is not something to be ashamed of but it is rather something to be powered by. We must embrace it as our fuel.
2. Lead from the bench
Our status or position doesn’t define our self-worth. “If you’re not a leader on the bench, don’t call yourself a leader on the field” said Abby. “You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.”
If we’re benched – or passed over for a promotion, or taken off a project – while our colleagues get ahead, here is what’s important: we are allowed to be disappointed, but we should never miss the opportunity to lead from the bench.
3. Champion each other
Women often find themselves having to compete against each other for that one seat at the table. But it is within our power to reach out to other women to champion them.
“Amplify each others’ voices” Abby called on graduates. “Call out each other’s wins and just like we do on the field: claim the success of one woman, as a collective success for all women.”
4. Demand the ball
“Women. At this moment in history leadership is calling us to say: give me the effing ball. Give me the effing job. Give me the same pay that the guy next to me gets. Give me the promotion. Give me the microphone. Give me the Oval office. Give me the respect I’ve earned and give it to my wolf pack too.”
It’s time women to recognise and value their worth, to be more assertive and to not be afraid to ask for what they deserve.
Abby Wambach concluded her speech with the most important message yet:
“Don’t just ask yourself, “What do I want to do?” Ask yourself: “WHO do I want to be?” Because the most important thing I’ve learned is that what you do will never define you. Who you are always will.”
Featured image under CC BY 2.0 license