A remarkable role model breaks barriers and advances the cause of women in sport — and serves as an inspiration for us all when it comes to fairness in paychecks

By Alexis Glick

When “Equal Pay Day” was originated by the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996, it was a public service to remind us of the gap between men’s and women’s wages. As if women needed reminding!

Obviously, women making 80 cents on the dollar compared to men is unacceptable on every level, in every field. But as a CEO who has a lot of interaction with professional sports, the inequities are particularly obvious to me, and occasionally infuriating.

But I’m beyond encouraged by the bravery of one marvelous woman who is trying to erase those inequities.

One of the perks of being CEO of a national youth-wellness nonprofit is that I get to meet a great many remarkable and accomplished folks in a wide variety of fields — from hard-working (and to me heroic) American dairy farmers . . . to world-class professional sports figures. And of course since one of the founding partners of the organization I lead, GENYOUth, is the NFL, I have more than once found myself tongue-tied in the presence of superstars from pretty much every one of the 32 teams in the League.

Recently, I’ve become good friends with a pro athlete who so amazed me with her combination of grit and grace, warmth and wisdom, that I asked her to join GENYOUth’s Board of Directors — right alongside the NFL Commissioner, the CEO of UnitedHealthcare, celebrity chef Carla Hall, and other luminaries from the worlds of business, sports, and nutrition. This astonishing woman’s name is Claressa Shields.

An American professional boxer, Claressa is a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2012 & 2016) and was the first American boxer — female or male — to win consecutive Olympic medals. She is currently the unified world champion in two weight classes, holding the World Boxing Council (WBC) and International Boxing Federation (IBF) female super middleweight titles since 2017, as well as the IBF and WBA female middleweight titles since June 2018.

We were fortunate enough to have Claressa as a keynote panelist at GENYOUth’s gala this year, where she shared the stage with Super Bowl Champion, Victor Cruz, former Major League Baseball rookie-of-the-year, Aaron Judge, and former NFL player and current television commentator, Nate Burleson. It’s an understatement to say that she brought down house — both with her personal story of battles overcome and goals achieved, and by the sensitive and thoughtful advice she offered.

We are in a time in society’s evolution in which women look to women for mutual support as never before, and in which women with high-profile responsibilities bond over struggles common to each of us, regardless of our backgrounds.

One of the many things that Claressa and I share is not only our love of sports, but of our early commitment to athletics as a “way up” in childhood and adolescence. For Claressa, it was boxing as a part of surviving the tough streets of Flint, Michigan, while with me it was basketball, which I played obsessively while growing up in the concrete jungle of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Sports kept us both sane, focused, on-target, and out of trouble — and gave us confidence and helped us advance.

Our shared love of sports isn’t all Claressa and I share, though. We are both highly focused on, and ever-conscious of, the inequities represented by, the gender gap around pay levels in professional sports. And yes, it still exists, big-time, and there’s no better time to revisit it than on Equal Pay Day.

According to Forbes (August 27, 2018), “Zero female athletes appear on the list of 100 highest-earning athletes in 2018. The top ten highest-paid female athletes last year earned a combined $105 million. Meanwhile, three of the top-earning male athletes — U.S. Boxer Floyd Mayweather, Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, and Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo — each earned more than $105 million last year.”

At the NBA, it is estimated that male basketball players earn approximately 100 times the salaries of their female WNBA counterparts.

I could go on. According to the BBC, writing about professional golf (Is The Gender Gap In Sport Really Closing, October 23, 2017), “Men in the U.S. Open compete for a chance to take home almost $1.5 million, twice as much as the prize money for the female champion.” The U.S. women’s soccer team recently had to literally bring suit to bring attention to the unfairness in soccer. Professional tennis remains the only sport where equity exists.

As for Claressa’s sport, boxing, Sporting News reported (September 7, 2018) that “Amanda Serrano, the only women’s boxer to have won five world titles in five different weight classes, has to work a full-time job in order to make ends meet.”

One of the reasons for the pay differential in boxing has been that women’s boxing matches traditionally haven’t been televised. Our own Claressa Shields, however, is helping to change that, with her bout against Germany’s Christina Hammer, to be shown April 13 on Showtime. The two will meet to crown the women’s undisputed 160-pound world champion. The blockbuster event from Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. will be the main event of SHOWTIME BOXING: SPECIAL EDITION live at 9 p.m. ET and is arguably the most significant women’s boxing event in history. I can’t wait to be ringside to witness history in the making.

Boxing promoter Dmitriy Salita put it best, “Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer, both champions, both in their prime, are not only taking on the biggest challenge in their respective careers by meeting each other in the ring, but are breaking barriers for boxing and for women in sports. April 13 is destined to be an electric and historic night of boxing.”

To my friends and colleagues reading this post, I hope you’ll tune in for this historic moment in sports. But I urge you to keep in mind the ongoing inequities in our world yet to be righted, especially when it comes to women and earnings.

I say this for myself, for my daughter, and all the hard-working women in my life, and there are scores. And I especially ask you to join me in celebrating the heroism and the ascent of the spectacular Claressa Shields, as she not only breaks barriers in sport and gender, and joins our growing organization’s Board of Directors in service of the next generation, but takes a giant step forward for women and equity on this special day and every day.

Alexis Glick is CEO of GENYOUth, the national youth wellness and empowerment nonprofit with programs in over 75,000 schools.