This past week, Serena Williams apparently stepped out of line when she argued with the umpire at the US Open final. Whilst her behaviour was unquestionably rude, the punishment meted down upon her was harsh. After being accused of coaching on the court, she was handed a point penalty. By the end of the match, the umpire had awarded her opponent a game and Williams a $17,000 fine. Commentators the world over remain divided as to whether her punishment was fair or – as Williams herself argues, yet another example of double standards and sexism.
Activists often say that men are awarded for their anger. In sports, men such as John McEnroe have built a career out of screaming at umpires and smashing tennis rackets – they’re often viewed as lovable rogues. Serena Williams was judged to be simply too aggressive, too rude. So, are women held to a higher standard and if so, can society ever achieve true equality of opportunity? Where does this apparent double standard start and if it exists, how endemic is it?
Wiping out gender inequalities begins at school. Achieving parity has been a major objective for global bodies such as the UN. A key plank of its Millennial Development Goals (MDG’s) was to eliminate global gender differences across all levels of education by 2015 with equal numbers of boys and girls attending. This target was met, and the knock-on socio-economic effects are also plain to see. A United Nations report* on MDG outcomes shows that globally, women now make up 41% of paid workers outside of agriculture – up from 35% in 1990. The report also shows that the number of women in Parliaments has nearly doubled over the past 20 years. With concerted effort, progress can be made – but what about pay?
The Pay Gap
In 2018, a new law in the UK forced large companies to publish the earnings for all of their employees. The figures show that there is a median pay gap (salary per hour) of 9.8% across these companies. The data reveals a reliable big picture but fails to take in to account issues such as part-time working or the seniority of posts. The real question is, do men and women earn precisely the same amount in the same job, in addition to achieving the same output (sales performance for example). Whilst governments and special interest groups may never achieve such a nuanced analysis, by forcing companies to publicly release their pay grades, bosses may be more inclined to enforce equal pay across the workforce.
When it comes to the sports world, it’s hard to ignore gender pay differences. In 2017, the Forbes 100 highest paid athletes* list features only one woman - Serena Williams – who was ranked 51st. This year, there are none – not one woman. Tennis star Martina Navratilova – women’s answer to John McEnroe – earns £15,000 for her job as a sports commentator. John McEnroe earns** ten times as much - £150,000.
Across society and business sectors, the gender pay gap will take 100 years to close, according to the World Economic Forum in a 2017 Study*. Even worse, the report also shows that the pay gap has widened for the first time in over a decade. It is important for women – whether they’re budding sports stars or ambitious entrepreneurs, to know that they’re taken equally as seriously. Many young girls will look to sports stars as role models and it is a detriment to their hopes and dreams if they suspect they might not be as valued by society as men are.
A Level Playing Field
If women are to be given a fair crack at the whip and allowed to compete on a level playing field – whether on the actual field or in the board room - we need to celebrate their achievements for what they are. Women don’t want special favours, nor do they want to be vilified for defying society’s conformist expectations of what a woman should look like, sound like or dress like. Aggression, ambition and fearlessness are human qualities that help many to succeed. They’re traits that help us to get up in the morning and face the day, write a business plan or face a panel of investors for that all-important first-round funding.
Sports stars have a special part to play as role models for young boys and girls – we must bear that in mind. Women in sports, business, schools and hospitals should all be given the same level of respect for the job they do and equal pay when they do it. Tomorrow’s board rooms and tennis courts must value women for who they really are. Women must be respected and rewarded for their output. It may or may not be true that women have taken a step back in 2018 after the Serena Williams story. Perhaps that is why we actually still need people like her – firebrands who shout loud, throw on a catsuit on the tennis court and climb to the top without fear. Serena Williams should be celebrated.