A Double Standard in U.S. Soccer? Not Surprising.


Source: pixabay.com

Matthew Futterman’s recent piece in The Wall Street JournalThe U.S. Soccer Double Standard,” should sound very familiar to scholars of work.

He makes the very strong case that women athletes in the U.S. are held to a different standard than men.  The evidence?  Female soccer players on the UNDEFEATED 2015 U.S. World Cup team are accused of “sloppy, uncreative play” (despite outscoring opponents by a wide margin), having “unsatisfying wins,” and some players are even apologizing for some victories, saying that their play will improve.  The coach has even been defensive in response to recent victories.

In contrast, Futterman goes on to point out, soccer players in last year’s men’s U.S. World Cup team won one game (against Ghana), tied a game (against Portugal), and lost to Germany and Belgium yet were hailed as the “spunky underdogs storming the gates of the soccer establishment” and widely celebrated upon their return home.  I’m not able to find record of ANY member of the men’s national team apologizing for their 2014 World Cup performance. The double standard, some argue, is because we have heightened expectations for women to win—and win big—and expect less of the men.  The women recently won two World Cup titles (in 1991 and 1999) and at the start of World Cup play were ranked second in the world by FIFA. The men have qualified for every World Cup since 1990 but have never won a title.

Researchers who study the workplace and workplace evaluation would disagree with the reason for this double standard.  It’s not about their excellent past performance but instead about the expectations we have about women’s performance at work (whether it’s on the field or in an office).   I’ve cited the literature on this topic in an article with coauthor Elizabeth Gorman.   We point out that social psychological and sociological research spanning nearly two decades has concluded that:

  • people evaluate the same performance better when they are told it was done by a man than a woman,
  • when an excellent performance is produced jointly by a woman and man people assume that the man contributed more than the woman,
  • people tend to attribute women’s success to luck rather than skill. The opposite is true for men whose successes are almost always seen as a result of their skill, and
  • evaluators tend to require higher performance from women than from men before they are deemed competent.

The research goes on to point out that if women are deemed competent and worthy, people around them tend to label them as “unlikeable” and “difficult” unless they place the interest of others above their own (but that when they do emphasize their work group, their individual efforts tend to go unnoticed).

What’s going on with the commentary and expectations surrounding the U.S.’s 2015 World Cup seems in line with what these researchers have found. Commentators talk about the team’s skill as being underwhelming.  One wonders. If they win the World Cup, will it be called luck?  One also has to wonder, as Futterman cleverly points out, whether the story would be different if the men’s national team performance in 2014 was as good as the women’s 2015 performance.  Here’s a way to test that (anyone looking for a paper idea?):  Ask a sample of people to rate both the men’s national team performance in the 2014 World Cup and the women’s national team performance in this year’s World Cup but without knowing which team is which.  In other words, blind the team name. Better yet, assign the 2014 U.S. men’s team the 2015 U.S. women’s team record and vice versa.

Whether it is in sport, in the boardroom, or on the shop floor, it seems that gender stereotypes still shape how we rate job performance.





  1. Howard Aldrich said:

    Did you watch the FOX Sports TV coverage of the game against Germany? Why was the broadcasting team gender balanced? 2 men & 2 women. One of the men was a former coach who’d coached several of the players. I HOPE that the explanation is simply that they tried to fill the broadcasting seats with former women players & commentators, but that they were all too busy… I would love to have heard Mia Hamm or Kristin Lilly’s thoughts during the game.

    I loved Coach Jill Ellis’ response when a reporter asked her, immediately after the game, after her apparent change in tactics for the game. She immediately replied, it wasn’t about the tactics [coach], it was about the players. What a wonderful way to stand up for your team. (Reminded me of the graciousness of coach Dean Smith).

    • Exactly. The coach’s response was great. Not sure if you’ve noticed there are more women on the pre-game, post-game, and “final word” game analyses. And who knows. Maybe FOX Sports is planning a gender-balanced broadcast team for the next men’s world cup…

  2. Howard Aldrich said:

    Hey, maybe we should pro-actively write Fox Sports with your suggestion! (In our dreams….)

  3. I appreciate the sentiment here, but I think Futterman’s WSJ argument is facile and uninformed.

    The USWNT is perhaps the greatest soccer team/franchise ever (see: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/the-u-s-women-may-be-the-greatest-world-cup-dynasty/). In contrast, the US men’s team is currently ranked 27th in the world. In the World Cup, they were substantial underdogs versus the likes of Germany and Belgium (currently ranked 1st and 2nd in the world respectively). It’s not unreasonable to have different expectations for the women and men here. The women’s situation seems reminiscent of football coach Don Shula treating wins like losses for his undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, or how here in Canada, anything less than a gold medal in international ice hockey competition for both men and women is seen as a disappointment.

    What Futterman isn’t acknowledging is that many countries who are strong in men’s soccer do not invest similar resources (institutionally and/or culturally) in women’s athletics, or in women in general. For example, the USWNT is burdened with sky-high expectations and scrutiny. In contrast, Spain – despite being a soccer-loving nation – appears to be completely apathetic about their women’s team: http://screamer.deadspin.com/spain-players-call-out-poor-wwc-preperation-request-ma-1712815701.

    There’s some really interesting research on how the discrepancy between women’s and men’s soccer competitiveness for various countries can be explained by political, economic and cultural variables (e.g., http://www.ucema.edu.ar/publicaciones/download/volume5/hoffmann.pdf). Soccer may very well be a symbol and/or microcosm of how the talents of women are prioritized and gestated in different countries. I’d argue that the dominance of the USWNT is enabled in part by many nations in the world underinvesting in their women, both on and off the soccer pitch.

    There are lots of situations in work and the world where women are held to unfairly high standards. I’m not sure this is one of them.

  4. Julie Kmec said:

    Kyle–you do raise good points, especially about the international under investment in women’s sports. Compared to a lot of countries, the USWNT have it good. Perhaps what hit home with Futterman’s piece is a different (but related) issue; worldwide, media coverage of women’s sports is minimal. Futterman reminded me that what coverage of the USWNT there has been has been somewhat negative (not necessarily about performance, but how they complain too much, how Abby Wambach apologized to an official). I’ve not looked yet today.

    Like I said in my post, someone needs to do that study.

    Thanks for following the blog!

  5. Howard Aldrich said:

    Did you see the articles yesterday & today about how England has responded to the player who scored an own-goal that led to their loss to Japan? Writers & commentators speculated about the difference between how the English public responded to several notable screw-ups by the English men’s team, versus how they’ve responded now to the player & the team.

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