The gender pay gap is a threat to national security

Editor’s note: The judicial kidnapping and sham trial of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia highlights, if more attention is still needed, Russia’s abysmal human rights record and the way Moscow manipulates people for his political ends Jason Blazakis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, however, argues that Griner’s conviction reveals an even deeper problem: the importance of viewing gender inequality as a matter of national security . Griner, unfortunately, is not alone, and a failure to improve US policies puts other female athletes at risk.

Daniel Byman


Earlier this month, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian judge to nine years in prison for drug-related offences. She can spend that time in a Russian penal colony unless diplomatic intervention by the United States results in his release. Griner’s fate in Russia underscores that gender inequality, including the gender pay gap, is an important national security issue and that the Biden administration must treat it as such.

Griner, a black woman and one of the WNBA’s highest-paid players, made $221,450 during the 2021-2022 season. While for the average American that’s a lot of money, in professional sports, especially compared to Griner’s male counterparts, it’s very little. In fact, Los Angeles Lakers star basketball player LeBron James does $542,377 per game— more than double what Griner makes in an entire season. This gender pay gap helps explain why Griner went overseas to boost her salary.

Griner isn’t the only American WNBA player who has potentially been put at risk playing overseas in an authoritarian country. Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and many others have also played in the professional basketball league of Russia or other authoritarian countries like China. Do it often offers big salarydays. When to grind played in China in 2014, after her freshman year in the WNBA, she was earning $600,000 for four months of work, more than 12 times her WNBA salary at the time.

Griner has become a centerpiece in a dangerous political negotiation between Russia and the United States. The United States would have been willing to exchange a dangerous arms dealer, Viktor Bout, for the freedom of Griner. There is also no doubt that Griner’s freedom negotiations affect how the United States reacts to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Though there is bipartisan support U.S. Congress to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on the U.S. to apply that label, the Biden administration has been hesitant to heed such calls because they could lead to a rift completes diplomatic relations with Moscow and would further complicate efforts to bring Griner home.

Simply put, there is a direct line from the gender pay gap in American sports and the participation of female athletes in more lucrative leagues in authoritarian countries to the calculations of American foreign policy regarding how it supports Ukraine. The gender pay gap in the United States is a national security threat with international implications. As this plays out today between the United States and Russia, it could affect US relations with other adversarial countries in the future.

Other female athletes potentially risk becoming bargaining chips in a high-stakes game between world powers. The recent rising tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan could put American female professional athletes at high risk. The Griner case illustrates that ripping off an American, especially an American with some notoriety like Griner, can be politically lucrative.

The Biden administration should recognize that the gender pay gap poses a national security threat and act on it. The officials are would be close to release the new national security strategy, possibly as early as September. The last National Security Strategy, released by the Trump administration in 2017, emphasized an “America First” approach, which is to go it alone. The Biden administration in 2021 Interim National Security Policy Directions, a precursor to its national security strategy, says nothing about the gender pay gap as a threat to national security. This should be corrected in the new, more in-depth national security strategy.

The Biden administration takes gender seriously as a national security issue. I know this firsthand from volunteering to work for the Biden campaign and serving on its National Security Diversity Task Force. Of course, the initiatives and task forces associated with political campaigning don’t always translate into politics once in office, but to Biden’s credit, diversity in national security has been more than just a talking point for administration. For example, the Interim National Security Strategic Directions highlighted the need to address gender-based violence as a national security challenge. This is an important step. The Biden administration also explained, in its National strategy against domestic terrorism, this expert analysis was needed to better understand how gender-based violence can have implications for domestic terrorist threats. It is also a positive step, especially since violence directed against women by “involuntarily celibate” extremists has been described as a significant domestic threat in a recent US secret service report.

While it is important to emphasize the need to address gender-based violence, the Biden administration should go further to address gender issues in national security. The gender pay gap creates an underlying risk that women, such as Griner, bear – and which may then have implications for US foreign policy and national security. It needs to be tackled head-on, and the next National Security Strategy is the ideal vehicle to do so. Integrating gender pay equity into the strategy would encourage state and national security agencies to develop policies, regulations and procedures to close the pay gap. Until that happens, the US national security apparatus will have more Griner-type situations to resolve. Due to gender pay inequities, American women, and likely not just athletes, will look for ways to increase their earnings outside of the United States. This will create more supply for authoritarian states who will not hesitate to take advantage of it by taking them hostage, under the guise of legal machinations. The hostage-taking will cripple US foreign policy and lead to more exchanges that, like Bout’s potential release, could harm national security. The solution is to close the wage gap and create a fairer society at home.

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