This has been a memorable year for the Indian women’s cricket team — winning the Asia Cup recently, bagging the first-ever medal (silver) in the Commonwealth Games, endorsement deals for some of its stars — but the announcement that women cricketers contracted to the BCCI would draw the same remuneration as their male counterparts must have warmed the hearts of the women in blue. This is a historic step; India is now the second cricket-playing nation after New Zealand to pay its men and women cricketers on par.
BCCI secretary Jay Shah made the announcement on Twitter, earning him and the nation’s apex cricketing body rare praise for the move. Some of India’s greats such as Sachin Tendulkar lauded it as “a welcome step towards gender equality in the game and ending discrimination” while women professionals such as actor Tapsee Pannu hailed it as “a huge step towards equal pay for equal work”. Actor and ace cricketer Virat Kohli’s wife Anushka Sharma too exulted with emojis on her social media timeline. And others are adding to the applause. The BBCI had recently announced that India’s women cricketers will also have their first-ever IPL season with five teams next year, which is likely to see large amounts of money channeled to most of them. Beset by allegations of nepotism and extreme politicisation of the cricket administration, the BCCI can bask in some glory. This is good optics, the hard work begins now.
The historic step in cricket should inspire other sports bodies to similarly review their payment policies and bring parity between men and women. The gender pay gap is not unique to India; the world of tennis was rocked at the highest level in 2019 when tennis ace Serene Williams urged her male counterparts to amplify her demand for equal pay. In the US Open, men and women champions are awarded equal prize money but it happened only after title-holder Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the tournament in 1973 if men and women were not equally rewarded.
Back home, equal pay is likely to motivate more women into taking up sports as a serious pursuit. However, closing the gender pay gap is not sufficient for women to excel in sports at the highest competitive levels; the ecosystem needs to be made more gender-friendly too. In women’s cricket, what’s needed are coaching centres and academies, support structures in small towns, competitive local or regional tournaments, facilities such as travelling companions for women who have young children, and so on. The cardinal error that institutions often make on mainstreaming gender issues is to assume that equal pay is the destination; it is only the beginning.
The BCCI’s decision will serve a larger purpose if the conversation around the gender pay gap — and the gender gap in the workforce itself which has seen an alarming drop in the number of women in the last decade — picks up in non-sports domains. Recent reports showed that Indian women earned on an average 28% less than the men who did the same work; the gap used to be 48% in 1993-94. Clearly, the gap was closing. However, the pandemic reversed some of the gains and the gender pay gap showed a 7% increase between 2019 and 2021, according to official data.
The decline in women’s labour participation rate is attributed to several factors such as their domestic duties and obligations and the lack of flexible work models, but the lack of parity in pay, whether for rural women in the agricultural sector or urban women in informal sector, is less addressed. Even in formal sectors of the economy, including corporate India, there are murmurs that gender pay parity is still a pipe dream, and it often boils down to a woman’s negotiating skills to drive a hard bargain. If more women have to participate in the workforce — they must because India’s average female participation in the workforce stands at 24% against the global average of 45% — then it is important for governments and employers to address pay parity.
Clearly, much work remains to be done on the issue of closing the gender pay gap and bringing parity. The BCCI scored a straight six which will, hopefully, motivate other sports bodies as well as organisations to follow suit.