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The Accidental Activist

Megan Rapinoe and the Fight for Equal Pay

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Pink hair is not what separates Megan Rapinoe from the pack. It takes more than pink hair and an attitude to be an activist. And, it takes more than a disarming smile to influence people and make them believers.

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Megan Rapinoe offered her take on pay equity at WorldatWork's 2019 Pay Equity Symposium in Philadelphia.

All eyes are upon the soccer phenom as she arrives at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia on Monday. Rapinoe shows up in sweatpants and with a small entourage. She is with three people: her agent, a former World Cup teammate wearing a KISS t-shirt, and a writer who is traveling with Rapinoe to take in the whole spectacle.

Admirers immediately recognize Rapinoe in the hotel lobby and seek her attention. This is the life of a celebrity with a cause célèbre. She has traveled across the country to discuss the issue of pay equity in front of an audience of nearly 200 human resources professionals that represent Corporate America. This issue is much larger than Rapinoe’s 5-foot-6-inch frame. It “transcends sports,” to use her words.

You might call Rapinoe an accidental activist. She says she never thought about activism as a conscious choice. It was about three or four years into her professional soccer career that “coming out [as a gay woman] shaped it,” she said in an exclusive interview with WorldatWork before her keynote chat with Scott Cawood at the 2019 Pay Equity Symposium.

Read more: Scoring Small Victories in a Battle for Pay Equity

“I started realizing quickly being on the [women’s national] team that it has a voice and the things [we] say mattered,” said Rapinoe, 34. “I started to understand that as the team’s popularity grew, it [becoming an activist] was going to grow with it.”

Rapinoe said she is “incredibly inspired” by the activism of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg (climate change) and Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, Fla.) students Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg (gun control).

She made clear her admiration for the teen activists.

“If you’re not inspired by Greta Thunberg, you’re a cold soul,” she said. “How cool for these kids to understand at that age [how important it is] to be involved.”

She has mad respect, she says, for “the courage it takes for them [the teen activists] to not be scared of the powers that be, giving attitude to parents and presidents all the same.”

As the conversation with Rapinoe shifts to the workplace, it is fascinating to see how she so readily connects what she has learned on the soccer field to the business world.

On the soccer field, she says, when one person performs at an elite level, it elevates the rest of the group. In a business setting, everyone needs to be operating at their very best to the make the enterprise successful.

“It’s not a zero-sum game,” she said. “If I do better, it doesn’t mean you’re going to do worse. It’s the sum of all parts.”

Rapinoe stressed the importance of treating people with respect.

“Everyone is a human being, not just a robot completing a task,” she said. “Everyone has something special to bring. If they feel comfortable in their environment, their best will come out.”

It was evident by her grace and demeanor that authenticity, passion and lightness are traits that Rapinoe holds near and dear. “You have to be honest,” she said, in order to be a good leader.

Rapinoe demonstrated her kindness and desire to connect and inspire others by spending extra time and taking selfies with attendees after her keynote.

Organizations can only solve the issue of pay equity if they continue to hold crucial conversations with their employees, Rapinoe said. The power of protest has inspired the average worker “to be part of the change, to move the needle.”

Rapinoe stated a couple of times the importance of leaving the world a better place. Like all good and reputable institutions, the national soccer team, she said, holds a “deep sense of responsibility on the influence” they have on future generations. And that is critical, whether it means improving the state of pay fairness on the soccer field or in the workplace.

About the Author

Dan Cafaro is editor-in-chief of Workspan magazine.


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