Equal prize money at the Wimbledon tennis championships is of no advantage to the equal pay lobby

The recent news that the All England Club is to increase the prize money for the women’s competition at Wimbledon to match that awarded in the men’s has sparked equal pay debates across the media. Even culture secretary Tessa Jowell spoke out in favour of equal prize money at Wimbledon. But the tennis prize money issue is not an equal pay matter.

The Wimbledon decision has come as no surprise. The Australian and US open championships already have the same prize money for men and women. And last year, the French Open followed suit, though only for the winners.

Last year, Roger Federer received £30,000 more than Amelie Mauresmo in the singles events at Wimbledon. Some commentators argued that it was morally wrong that the women players were not recognised to the same extent. Others questioned how women could hope for equal pay in the workplace when this was not reflected in this major sporting event.

Equality in law

However, this is where the error lies. Equal pay is a very real issue for many workers, but it should not be confused with the prize money professional tennis players win.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 gives an individual the right to the same contractual pay and benefits as a person of the opposite sex in the same employment, where the man and the woman are doing:

  • Like work or

  • Work rated as equivalent under an analytical job evaluation study or

  • Work that is proved to be of equal value.

Equal pay rights apply to ’employees’ and other workers who are engaged under a contract personally to execute work or labour. But tennis players are not employees in the same employment.

The newspaper headlines relating to equal treatment and rights to equal money are emotive and do suggest that there is an equal pay issue. However, that would require us to imagine that all tennis players are employees carrying out the same duties for the same employer.

In this imaginary workplace the work of both male and female players is seen as the same or of the same value. Would there be an equal pay claim in that situation? The answer is yes.

There would probably be an equal pay claim based on the fact that the women were receiving more per hour than the men. The fact is that women’s tennis matches have fewer sets and are completed quicker than the men’s. And, because of the shorter games and time spent playing in last year’s tournament, the top 10 women earned 4% more prize money than the top 10 men, as they played in the doubles and mixed doubles events as well.

Self-employed status

Tennis players are professional athletes who make money based on the audience they can attract. Their status is that of a self-employed business person who, instead of competing for contracts, competes for prize money and sponsorship.

The value to championships, sponsors and the media depends on the popularity of players and their ability to attract the public. Equal pay or sex discrimination does not figure in the amount that they can negotiate for payment, as this depends entirely on their own success rather than their gender.

Equal pay is still a very real issue in UK workplaces. However, trumpeting Wimbledon’s decision to award the same prize money to men and women as a victory for equal pay is misguided and could prove to be counter-productive for the equal pay lobby.

Double fault in tennis equal pay debate

  • Equal pay rights apply to employees or workers carrying out duties for the same employer.

  • Equal pay applies where the work is the same, equivalent or of equal value.

  • The same rate of pay should apply except where the employer is able to show a material reason for the difference that is not related to gender.

  • Tennis players are not employees working for one employer – if they were male players they could claim they were paid less per hour than their female colleagues.

By Guy Guinan, employment partner, Halliwells

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