The Conversation We’re Not Having About Caitlin Clark

How do we determine her worth, and will a higher salary close the gender pay gap?

Caitlin Clark pro WNBA pay inequality Arina Zaiachin | Canva, Erik Dros | Flicker

I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that basketball saved my daughter. She had just turned 11 when I drove her, kicking and screaming, to her first practice.

Over the preceding few months, she had plunged headfirst into adolescence, and no one in the family, herself included, had quite been prepared for it. Suddenly teachers were calling us nearly every week to recount her disruptive behavior; at home, she shut herself in her room for hours at a time and listened to angsty music, emerging primarily to alternately yell at us and ask us to buy her things.


I thought a sports team might help to channel her ferocity; also, it would get her out of the house. Given that it was December and she was nearly a head taller than anyone else in her grade, basketball seemed the obvious choice. I played basketball myself from fourth to 11th grade; it was a game I understood and suspected my daughter would enjoy.

The highlight of my middle school experience was uniting with my scrappy team of five other players, with whom I’d been playing for four years, to beat a superior undefeated team in the eighth-grade championship. In high school, all my closest friends were my “basketball friends.” Occasionally we drove down to Palo Alto to watch the Stanford women’s games, and we were once rendered speechless when the team entered the restaurant where we’d stopped to get a bite to eat.


On the way to my daughter’s first game, she asked if I could explain the rules. The first time she got the ball, she started dribbling in the wrong direction and after the game, she told me in no uncertain terms that she hated basketball and was never going back.

But as she settled in, she started making both friends and baskets. She quickly emerged as a leader on her team, always looking for the pass and enthusiastically high-fiving her team members when they scored.

At school, the calls from my daughter’s teachers became more infrequent. At home, she yelled less. By the end of the season, she was lamenting that she hadn’t started playing basketball sooner. She would never be “good enough,” she said, because she’d started too late.

I gently reminded her that she’d been furious with me for signing her up in the first place, plus there was this slight disruption in our lives called COVID, plus it was so much better that she’d spent her younger years climbing trees and running up and down the street.


Besides, what does “good enough” mean, anyway? If you’re making friends, building confidence, learning new skills, and having fun, isn’t that all that matters?

My daughter rolled her eyes. "Whatever Mom," she said.

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Now, a little over a year later, women’s basketball seems to be having a moment. Everyone has been talking about superstar player Caitlin Clark, and for the first time, the women’s NCAA championship was viewed more widely than the men’s.

Then, in April, when it was announced that Clark would be joining the WNBA, the conversation turned to her salary — an unimpressive $76,535 in her first year, far less than the minimum $1.12 million for first-year NBA players and ridiculously less than the $12,160,680 that first pick NBA player Victor Wembanyama is receiving. 


Naturally, many people, myself included, were not happy about this. Indignation was fiercely expressed. Debates around the gender pay gap in professional sports were reignited.

But I have to say, as infuriating and as gaping as the gender pay gap is for professional basketball players — and soccer players and many other pro athletes as well — there’s an alluring tidiness to the narrative, isn’t there? The inherent sexism is so glaring; the injustice so naked. I mean, sure, you can talk in circles about men’s “superior” athletic abilities, as some people do, but the sheer breadth and audacity of the pay gap is impossible to ignore. 

"Pay Caitlin Clark What She’s Worth," proclaims a recent headline in The New York Times Opinions section. I can’t say I disagree with anything in this article or the many other articles that have made the same point. I absolutely 100% believe that professional female sports athletes deserve equal pay.


Lest there be any confusion around this point, I’ll say it again for the folks in the back: I absolutely 100% believe that professional female sports athletes deserve equal pay.

RELATED: The First Year Salary For WNBA's #1 Draft Pick Caitlin Clark Is Barely More Than An Average Office Worker In Indiana

But what is Caitlin Clark worth? No one seems to be asking, or answering, this question. What should this equal pay look like in practice? What should determine whether a first-draft pick player receives $76,535 or $12,160,680? When we argue that Caitlin Clark deserves equal pay, are we arguing that she should also be paid $12,160,680? How much are professional athletes “worth,” particularly when compared to professionals and workers in other sectors? 

Should we only be talking about paying professional female athletes more, or should we also be talking about paying professional male athletes less? Should we only be talking about how much (or how little) female athletes profit from professional sports, or should we also be talking about everyone else who profits from professional sports — for instance, the (mostly male) team owners, (mostly male) media executives, the (mostly male) CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?


What does gender equity in professional sports look like? Is it about the WBNA earning male billionaires and executives as much money as the NBA earns male billionaires and executives? Or is it about ensuring that an equal number of female billionaires and executives profit from the industry?

WBNA commissioner ​​Cathy Engelbert insists that no one needs to worry — Caitlin Clark will make far more than $76,535 in her first year. She explains, “Caitlin can make up to a half of a million dollars just in WNBA wages this year,” then goes on to further assure us that Clark can potentially earn more if she helps raise the WNBA TV ratings, and not only that, she will also earn money “through endorsement deals with such corporate giants as Nike, Gatorade, State Farm, and Goldman Sachs, among others.”

In other words, if Clark can earn men's money by raising TV ratings, and if she can earn other men's money by attaching her face to corporate advertising campaigns, she might make out pretty well.

We can certainly lament the sad fact that Caitlin Clark is making so much less than her NBA rookie counterpart. But the conversation shouldn’t stop there. Even if Caitlin Clark stood to make over $12 million in WBNA wages alone during her first year, would that “fix” the gender pay gap?


Well, no. Not even close. Because the gender pay gap is only partially about women in male-dominated industries and positions achieving pay parity. Even if all women across all male-dominated industries made the same amount as their male counterparts, the gap would continue to stubbornly persist.

That’s because the gender pay gap is mostly attributable to the fact that women in female-dominated care industries and women who take on disproportionate amounts of unpaid domestic labor are largely ignored by profit-driven capitalism. They are told by the market, in no uncertain terms, that their contributions to the economy are worth very little, or nothing at all.

I’ll say it one more time for the folks in the back: The gender pay gap is mostly attributable to the fact that women in female-dominated care industries and women who take on disproportionate amounts of unpaid domestic labor are largely ignored by profit-driven capitalism. They are told by the market, in no uncertain terms, that their contributions to the economy are worth very little, or nothing at all.

RELATED: The Only 9 Jobs Where Women Make More Than Men


The truth is, no matter how much Caitlin Clark gets paid, or how much a female Fortune 500 CEO gets paid, or how much a female WNBA team owner gets paid — none of that will change how much a childcare provider or home care aide gets paid or how our country perceives the value (or lack thereof) of the labor entailed in raising children, tending to our sick, caring for our elderly, and/or managing a home.

The care economy, which includes paid and unpaid labor, is estimated to be worth up to $6 trillion, nearly a quarter of total U.S. GDP. It is not only economically essential labor, enabling all other work to get done, but it is also essential to the growth and development of our children, the healing of our sick, and the dignity and health of our disabled and elderly.

The Wilson Center reports that “globally, women and girls contribute more than 70 percent of total global caregiving hours (paid and unpaid) and perform more than 75 percent of unpaid care work.”

This care work conversation — who does it, how much it’s worth, and how much we do (or don’t) get paid for it — is a messier, more nuanced, and far more controversial conversation than pay parity in male-dominated sectors. When women try to talk about it, we are told by men that we don’t “get” how the market works, or that care work simply doesn’t have the same profit potential as, say, pro sports, and is, therefore, less economically valuable. Or we are told that the disproportionate amount of unpaid care work we do ourselves has nothing to do with our “real jobs” and if we want to make more money, we just have to stop being martyrs and hustle harder.


At least, this is what a lot of men have told me.

The care work conversation requires us to acknowledge the many ways in which capitalism is failing women — and failing most of us. It’s a conversation that forces us to question a lot more than how much a female pro athlete deserves to be paid.

And unless we shift the conversation, we will end up with female pro sports leagues that are simply and desperately trying to emulate male pro sports leagues — trying to rake in the same obscene amount of cash, trying to lure the same corporate giants, trying to win the favor of the same media executives, all to prove that what they have to offer is just as valuable and has just as much worth.

What if we said, “Eff it?” What if we leveraged the growing popularity of female basketball players to help change the narrative? What if the narrative fixated less on what Caitlin Clark is making (or not making) and more on the fact that a rookie male NBA player is deemed by the market to be 39 times more valuable than the care providers who are helping to raise our next generation of children?

@yourtango A woman expects to pay a nanny only $3-4 dollars an hour, saying it’s the ‘funnest and easiest job ever.’ Credit to @Kera for the original post. #momsoftiktok #parenting #workingmom #childcare #nanny ♬ original sound - YourTango

What if the narrative recognized how much professional sports have been corrupted by the all-mighty profit motive, the extent to which the industry has become more about money and individual glory and endorsement deals than about the actual values of teamwork and persistence that coaches preach to our children?

Let me tell you, it is fun as heck to watch female basketball players at the top of their game. I love seeing their intensity, ferocity, synergy, and single-minded determination — the same qualities I love seeing in my daughter on the basketball court.

But I, for one, don’t want my daughter to be the next Caitlin Clark.


When my daughter joined a club team this past spring — a free one organized by our district high school — I experienced firsthand the point at which sports stop being fun and become something else entirely. At a Saturday tournament, for which we thankfully only had to drive 20 minutes, my daughter’s team was roundly clobbered in their first game. In their next tournament game that afternoon, her coaches brought on a superstar fifth grader, who won the game for them by repeatedly driving to the basket and never once passing the ball.

I was sitting in the stands amongst parents whom I later learned were shelling out a ton of cash (in the neighborhood of over $5,000 per season) and schlepping their families all over the state in the hopes that their 11- and 12-year-old daughters might win college scholarships and maybe one day get drafted by the WBNA. It was a different experience from my daughter’s regular season, in which most players were there simply to feel a sense of belonging, enjoy themselves, and learn new skills.

During that club tournament, I could feel the pressure. It wasn’t fun to watch either of the games and my daughter didn’t have fun playing in them. It’s not just about the pressure to individually perform, but the pressure to gracefully handle the spotlight if you succeed. And once you reach a certain level, the pressure to please the billionaires and corporate giants scrambling to make money off you.

When assessing what any pro athlete is “worth,” I don’t think about the profit potential for these billionaires and corporate giants but about the athlete’s potential for inspiring us, teaching us, and bringing us joy. Some pro athletes do this very well, as do many, many workers across our economy’s lowest-paid and unpaid care sectors. And many of these workers will never make as much money as Caitlin Clark, even at her measly starting salary.


Pay Caitlin Clark what she’s worth, yes. But what we need to do is question the criteria we should use to assess worth, particularly the so-called “market value” of the female-dominated positions and industries that are driving the gender pay gap.

This is the conversation we’re not having.

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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.