Equal Pay For Women Athletes: Elite Prize Purses

Equal Pay: The Radical Notion That Women Are P...
Equal Pay: The Radical Notion That Women Are People (Photo credit: Madison Guy)

It’s Election Day, and here at Salty Running we’re a binder full of opinionated spicy women! And this spicy lady would like to talk about equal pay. Now that the election is almost over though, I don’t want to get into the candidates’ opinions on equal pay for women in the work force, I want to talk about the dynamics of elite prize purses for professional running and triathlon.

My boyfriend and I were tracking a friend this weekend who raced Ironman Florida. We were chatting about the race and the elite fields as we waited with a bunch of my running gal pals (including Salty!) for tables at a local diner, when my boyfriend made me do a double take. He went from talking about the elite fields to an argument that the women should not have the same prize purse as the men in this event. What!?

Now before you start making picket signs, he had a rationale for his argument: Field size.   He was adamant that because there were 39 male pros and only 19 female pros that the top 5 women should split a prize purse smaller than the top five men. Seeing as we were out to breakfast with 12 other women, I could not believe he chose that moment to strongly argue this rationale. Essentially the pro women deserved less money because more men had chosen to race.

Elite women's race
You better believe these ladies have worked every bit as hard as any male runner to get to this point! (Photo credit: Stuart Grout)

We talked more about this all weekend and I still don’t agree. But this is a common debate in professional triathlons and marathons. IronMan has tried different methods to “even” the playing field, even at one point only awarding prize money for those within eight percent of the winning time. For pros racing the likes of Chrissie Wellington this could mean no paycheck, even after an outstanding day (Chrissie has dominated the IM field racing world record times and finishing far ahead of her competitors in recent years.)  The 8% rule was extraordinarily unpopular, protested heavily, and eventually expired.  The depth of talent at the top level of marathoning is similar. No women have come close to Paula Radcliffe‘s world record and most major marathons have more elite men than elite women in the race.

On a local level, my cyclocross experience has been that women are usually not awarded any prize money at all because their field tends to be so drastically  smaller than the men’s. Is this really fair? Should the women get less–or nothing–just because there are fewer women racing?

Should events treat prize money or even age group awards as a reward based on the percentage of people who showed up to race? IM does this with awards for its Kona race; every age group gets a slot for the winner, but from there extra slots are awarded based on the depth of the field. Perhaps this could be done for prize money, too.  But wouldn’t you hate to be that 4th place woman whose bad luck it was that a few pros dropped that day, leaving your field too small to award 4th and watching your money go to a tenth place male? Did he deserve that money more because he had more competitors?

I understand the basis for the argument; it reminds me of a local race I ran when I was still at an age group level with my running. A male friend had run a great race, but came up a few slots short of an age group award. He was livid that I had won my age group, arguing that most women just had to show up to win an award, and for most local races, he was right. It was very common to only have a few women in each age group while the male field was double or triple that of the female field.

While some of the arguments are sound I still don’t agree, and especially not at the top level. Every elite out there has put in similar training, given up similar amounts of time and needs the prize money equally regardless of sex or field size. I don’t think a pro woman should get paid less for her efforts just because ten more professional men showed up to race than women. Given my sex I am obviously biased, but I would like to think if the tables were turned and more professional women were in the race, I would still agree that awards should be given out equally regardless of the field depth.

Where do you stand on equal race prize purses for each sex? Do you feel that there should be some sort of equalizer for depth of field or depth of performance?

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A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. Great thoughts, Pepper! I agree with you, equal pay! But… I’ve heard your bf’s argument before so it wasn’t shocking for me to read.

    I’ve also heard that men and women shouldn’t be separated for awards… so the top 10 overall would get the money regardless of gender. (This is coming from a male friend who feels women and men have equal ability, maybe only a difference at the very top of the top performers). While I appreciate his confidence in women being fast, this would greatly decrease my race winnings each year! Yes, I can hold my own at local races and almost always place top 5, at least top 10, but I like having the same earning potential. And at a normal sized marathon, I wouldn’t stand a chance to make money.

    Although… maybe if we believe we aren’t as fast as men, we never will be?

  2. I totally agree that fields need to be even! Elite ultramarathoning is guilty of not offering equal prize purses to women as well. It is such a male dominated sport that you don’t even hear anyone talking about what women are top contenders, even though often times, women place in the top 10 overall or sometimes outright win in some longer distances. There’s a new 100 miler in Indiana next year, and to attract talent, they’re offering a $25K purse to anyone who can break the current 100 mile record. At first, that prize was only offered to men, but after so many runners cried foul, they extended the same offer to any women who can break the record as well. It’s a small step in the right direction.

  3. A win is a win. I view the “equal work” part of the equation as winning or placing against the field who chose to show up that morning. Should men’s winnings be less on days if someone like Ryan Hall or Meb is injured and chooses not to race that day? No, absolutely not. It’s kind of like Clove’s “Only” and “But” post.

    If race organizers don’t show that they value women’s accomplishments just as much as men’s by offering equal pay, then they are, in effect, discouraging the women’s field from growing in future generations.

  4. I love this post – the first line had me laughing so hard when I first read it!

    But seriously, this is a silly issue. If top 3 men get awards, then the top 3 women should. Women’s representation in running and triathlon is steadily increasing and for some races (half marathons, I believe) more women than men participate. You never know who’s going to show up and sometimes someone who normally wouldn’t be in the $$$ is in the $$$, but that can happen to either gender at any race.

    On top of that, much of the reason less women participate at the high levels has nothing to do with how hard those that do work and has way more to do with things like:

    – women have only been allowed to participate for a relatively short time!
    – fewer resources devoted to and a culture less encouraging of women in athletics.
    – the facts of life: women who have families are forced to take a break from training and might not be able to compete at a high level while raising a family

    Why should women who do put in the work and bust their butts be less deserving of men to receive an award for their athletic achievements just because there happen to be more men out there right now?

    And then if we do award fewer women’s prizes what does this tell our children about men and women in sports? How does this encourage more girls and women to go for it?

    So to me, equal pay ALL THE WAY! 🙂

  5. from a physiological perspective, women have to work a lot harder, given the same height, weight, fitness, and what have you because of hip ratio, ability to sweat, etc, so it makes sense that the times are a little slower for women across the board. that does not mean women are not working as hard, if not harder!

    as a result, the idea that women are getting “special treatment” because they are dipping into a separate pool of money is malarkey. there absolutely should be equal purses for top men and women. i understand the idea that maybe more men are competing. good for them. no matter how many men show up, though, that does not create some imagined equality between male and female biology.

  6. Agreed!!!! I played tennis in high school and of course got up early every day of Wimbledon to watch everyone compete. It wasn’t until 2007 that they equalized pay! And I’m not sure if the ATP and French Open have done it yet.

    Anyway, what that told me when I was in high school was that the women players weren’t as popular as the men. Which is BS but it sends a clear message. I hope at some point in the near future people are appreciated for what great things they bring to this world instead of their gender or physical appearance. We all have so much more to give than that!

    Great post! 🙂

  7. My husband made a good point that it’s in the race organize’rs best interest to pay women an amount that would make more of them want to run their race. This would hint toward equal pay or higher.

  8. Just because there’s less women racing doesn’t mean they should be paid less! I did a statistical comparison of women’s and men’s marathon times: http://camilleherron.com/2012/02/07/stats-comparison-of-mens-and-womens-marathon-times/

    Even looking at the past 4 years, there’s still a discrepancy in the percentage of men vs. women (~58% vs. 42%)– both genders are growing at the same rate (~number of marathoners is growing), which means the gap difference between men’s and women’s marathon times is staying the same and NOT changing.

    If I ever see a discrepancy between men’s and women’s pay (or lack-there-of), I’m going to call the race out. Every woman needs to have the brass balls AND intelligence to do this cause it’s not right! A lot of races base pay/bonuses on times, but what statistics are they using (if at all)? The time difference/or percent difference between men’s and women’s world records? I did the statistics using raw data, and there is NOT a linear difference going down the performance lists. Canada is probably the most myopic on this, jipping the women (whether regular marathons or with Olympic qualifying times).

    Sometimes a women’s course record may be an anomaly. For example, Gate River used to base their gender equalizer on their course record difference (with Deena holding the women’s course record of 47+ min., which no other woman has gotten close to). When the men kept winning the bonus year-after-year… they said “Wait a minute, maybe Deena’s time is an outlier, and we should base the equalizer on an AVERAGE difference between men’s and women’s winners.” On the other hand, Twin Cities 10 miler this year decided to give the women less head start, ‘because a few Olympian women showed up’ (not based on any fair, real-life statistics)… and the men’s winner won the bonus. Anyways, the point of all this is– races should use real data/statistics over many years, not using course records or some theoretical, arbitrary, or linear time difference for deciding bonuses or overall pay.

    Men can complain all they want– this is the reality of our sport (and most sports). The top women in the sport are busting their butts just as hard, if not harder, than the men. Just because there’s fewer women participating doesn’t mean we should be rewarded anything less.