Gregory is a TIME senior writer.
The women on the U.S. national hockey team can recall even the smaller slights as vividly as a high stick to the face. There was the time the players weren’t invited to the public unveiling of the Team USA jerseys for the 2014 Winter Olympics; the inside collar of those jerseys commemorated men’s Olympic champions but not the 1998 gold-medal-winning women’s team. But it’s a much deeper disrespect — how much the women make for doing the same job as their male counterparts — that has turned the hockey rink into the latest battleground in the nation’s ongoing fight over equality in the workplace.
In March, the team announced plans to boycott the world championship — which the U.S. is hosting in Plymouth, Mich., beginning on March 31 — unless the players get fairer compensation and increased support. In the past they’ve received $1,000 per month from USA Hockey — and only in the six months before the Olympics. Many players hold second and even third jobs to make ends meet — a situation that has some of the world’s most talented players questioning their careers.
Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and five-time world champ, plans to have a child after the 2018 Olympics. Although Lamoureux-Davidson, at 27, is still in her prime, she says a family would stretch her pay even thinner and could force her to give up a sport she’s been playing since she was a young girl brawling with her older brothers on a frozen pond in Grand Forks, N.D. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between their passion and having a family,” she says. “They should be able to do both.”
Across all fields, median earnings for full-time female workers in the U.S. are 80% of what men make — and sports stars are no exception. Last year five members of the U.S. women’s soccer team, the defending World Cup champions, filed a wage-discrimination suit against the sport’s national governing body, arguing that the players receive about a quarter of the compensation their male counterparts make despite being more successful on the field and a draw on TV.
Such fights have been waged by tennis stars for decades. After Billie Jean King threatened to sit out the 1973 U.S. Open, the men’s and women’s winner for the first time each took home the same $25,000 bonus. Wimbledon became the last of the sport’s four Grand Slams to offer equal prize money in 2007, after pointed lobbying from Venus Williams. “How did we get equal prize money?” says Stacey Allaster, former president and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association. “Ultimately it’s the athletes’ voice, the athletes’ power.” Even so, some lower-level tournaments continue to offer more money to the men’s draw.
The pay gap for tennis stars may not be the most urgent wage divide in the nation, but by using their perch to fight for a larger principle, female athletes have the potential to shift the national debate. “These athletes are role models,” says Bobbi Thomason, a senior fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “They pave the way for women in the workplace to fight for what’s fair.”
The women on the U.S. hockey team aren’t demanding the seven-figure contracts of their counterparts on the men’s team, who play professionally in the National Hockey League. They simply want a fairer deal from USA Hockey, one that recognizes the equal work they put into their jobs and the results on the ice: back-to-back silver medals and a consistent rank as one of the world’s top teams. The players also want equal investment in girls’ hockey programs and more marketing and promotion to grow the women’s game.
With the boycott threat as leverage, the players made progress during a marathon negotiating session with USA Hockey on March 20. If they do get a fairer deal, they say it will be the result of not only their specific case but also a social climate that has changed significantly since King spoke out at the U.S. Open. “The women that are standing up for themselves are making history,” says Meghan Duggan, a member of the team since 2007, drawing a line from her team’s fight to recent protest efforts like the Women’s March. “And it’s a good time to be on this side of history.”
This appears in the April 03, 2017 issue of TIME.