The Pregnancy Penalty: Female Athletes

By Ravneet Kahlon.

Anky Von Grunsven, Juno Stover Irwin, and Kerstin Szymkowiak are just three of the many female athletes who not only competed but also won medals whilst pregnant. Despite many female athletes successfully competing and returning to their sports following pregnancy, many athletes are now speaking out about the ongoing discrimination they faced during their pregnancy.

“There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant” voices Phoebe Wright following Nike’s recent advertisement. The campaign ironically champions female athletes, many of whom have expressed their disappointment with Nike’s discrimination against pregnant athletes.

So why do people feel as if Nike, and many other athletic sponsors, punish pregnant athletes?

Nike has been reported to cut pay, pause, or suspend sponsorships and are critical over the length of time female athletes take before returning to athletics following their pregnancy. US track star Alysia Montaño has been particularly vocal and started the #DreamMaternity hashtag as a response to Nike’s #DreamCrazy slogan. The #DreamCrazy campaign was intended to empower women to believe that they can achieve anything that they set their minds to. The immediate backlash was triggered by the hypocrisy of the industry which advertises to attract female customers and claims to champion women but ultimately discriminates against pregnancy.

There has also been issues over the discrepancy between how sponsors deal with pregnancy versus injuries that necessitate time off to heal or recuperate. Sponsors provide appropriate leniency to and accommodate these injuries without the same stigma and penalties that female athletes face when pregnant.

It should also be considered that it is not just companies like Nike who discriminate, but also health insurance providers, such as The United States Olympic Committee and U.S.A. Track & Field. If the athletes don’t place in a top position in competitive races, they prevent athletes from benefiting or even being covered by their health insurance. This rule has actively affected athletes, such as Goucher and Montaño who both lost their health insurance due to the period of time they took off whilst carrying their children.

Sponsors ultimately have the ability to pause or deduct from the athlete’s payment. During her pregnancy, Allyson Felix, one of Nike’s most famous athletes, candidly stated that she had failed to obtain a written confirmation that she would not be penalised if her performance and position fluctuated. Other athletes, such as Montaño, have also been candid with their struggle to receive payment, particularly during pregnancy. In the case of Montaño, this may be particularly surprising considering the media frenzy which followed her pregnancy as she became known as the ‘pregnant runner’. After Montaño went public with this information, there has been an outcry for sponsors to practice what they preach. Many feel that if they can benefit from these athletes, they should also be able to support them.

American athlete Phoebe Wright has also gone public with the pressure she experienced from her sponsors to begin competing at the earliest possible time. She spoke out about the financial reality of not being paid and how detrimental the lack of financial support can be on a family, particularly following a pregnancy. This pressure has led to female athletes forcing themselves to compete at the expense of their health.

What action has and should be taken?

This movement ignited a much-needed conversation in the sports industry and, to some extent, encouraged prompt action. In late 2018, a spokesperson for Nike said that the company had moved forward with its plans and now has more consistent and non-discriminatory contracts for pregnant athletes.

However, athletes like Montaño are still sceptical, highlighting that Nike has effectively added a ‘maybe’ clause. Nike still has the ability to go against athletes over their performance with no exception to pregnancy. This in turn has led to athletes demanding more formal, standardised, and universal protection.

Photo source.

We should also remember that although many athletes are speaking out, there are still many who can’t speak out due to non-disclosure agreements and general industry practice. This makes it hard to realise the full extent to which this discrimination has affected athletes.

The uncertainty and discrimination female athletes are currently facing is appalling; currently, there has been an increase in awareness, and social media movements have helped start a conversation. However, many argue this has only resulted in superficial changes. Therefore, more concrete action and measures need to be put in place to protect female athletes from this type of discrimination.

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