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Scholar Discusses How Tennis Leads The Way In Closing The Gender Pay Gap In Sports

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Guess what, tennis fans? You are feminists. Yes, you, perched on the edge of your couch watching these matches during the first week of Wimbledon, you are all witnesses to equality. You see, even though Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka are out, whoever wins the Women's Singles title will be paid just as much as the winner on the men's side. Professional tennis, unlike soccer or basketball, actually does have pay equity. Mary Jo Kane, professor emerita from the University of Minnesota, joins us now to talk about this.

Welcome.

MARY JO KANE: Thank you very much for having me. It's an exciting topic.

CHANG: Well, can you just explain for us what was the moment in tennis when the pay gap between men and women athletes went away? Like, was there one defining moment?

KANE: Well, there was probably a series of moments, but there was one defining individual - Billie Jean King...

CHANG: Yes.

KANE: ...Who in 1973, when she was the No. 1 player of the year - the backdrop, speaking of feminism, was the women's movement - she had been involved in the Battle of the Sexes. And she basically said she would not play the U.S. Open until the U.S. Open would guarantee pay equity. And they did.

CHANG: Pony up - and it's not just tennis that's been ponying up. I mean, golf has also closed the gender pay gap, right? What do these two sports have in common?

KANE: Well, first of all, they're individual sports, meaning they have a history of being much more acceptable in terms of traditional definitions of femininity and sexuality than do team sports, like, for example, soccer. I think the other thing that matters has just been the impact of Title IX. And next year, we'll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX. And what that means is that for the first time in the history of this country...

CHANG: Yeah.

KANE: We have a critical mass of young women who grow up with a sense of entitlement to sports and a sense of we want to be treated equally in sports.

CHANG: And explain more specifically what Title IX in education did to influence women's pay in sports.

KANE: Well, Title IX, which was passed in 1972, I would argue, with the possible exception of the Civil Rights Voting Act, is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed in this country. And what Title IX basically said is, within an educational institution, you cannot discriminate on the basis of gender. Prior to Title IX, we did not have organized competitive teams for girls and women. We didn't even have individual teams. We didn't have conferences. And we didn't have scholarships.

So for example, today, 43% of all scholarship athletes at the Division I level are female. And so in two generations, we've gone from young girls hoping that there is a team to young girls hoping that they make the team. That is the impact of Title IX.

CHANG: And do you think that momentum for pay equity in sports can spill over to other industries in the U.S.?

KANE: Well, I would hope so because over 85- to 90% of all women who are in C-suite level positions in corporate America have a background in highly competitive organized sports. So the women who will be - or the corporations who will be making those kinds of decisions, I hope, will be guided by those very women who have that kind of competitive sports background

CHANG: Music to my ears. Mary Jo Kane is professor emerita and the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

KANE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES SONG, "IF NOT FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.