Last year I was going to write a blog about Serena Williams, because when she won her last Grand Slam in 2017, I felt surprised that not a lot of people were talking about her. Now, I am moved to do so, by her return to business, which is not so business-as-usual for Serena, after having her baby in September last year.
First things first
Serena has taken every single record in the game and smashed it to pieces. Highest number of matches, most aces, most tournament wins, most grand slams, most wins as a single, most wins as a double (14 Grand Slams with Venus, they are unbeaten in finals), and now, surely, fastest return to form, after making it to the Wimbledon final within 1 year of having a baby. She actually won her last grand slam when she was 8 weeks pregnant. If you have ever been pregnant yourself, you might understand, because many women experience the greatest fatigue in the first trimester.
She is the only tennis player in history, man or woman, to have won titles 6 or more times in the 3 of the 4 Grand Slam tournaments, she is also the only tennis player EVER to have won 10 Grand Slam singles titles in TWO separate decades.
For 20 years now, she has been at the top of her game. Quite aside from tennis, Nike ran an advert last year asking if she was not the greatest athlete of all time?
Proving you’re worth it
But since Serena’s return to work, I am shocked to see how she is being asked to prove her worth all over again. For anyone who missed it, we saw for the first time in a long time, a top ranked player receiving a penalty from the umpire because (apparently) the coach was coaching her from the side-lines.
Hold on, don’t all coaches coach from the side-lines? I’ve definitely seen excited coaches doing that in Wimbledon before, and I’ve never seen a penalty given. You almost expect to see a few hand gestures.
Serena was furious with her coach and told the umpire she wasn’t even looking, but it didn’t matter. She lost the point, and then the game.
Before that furore, the latest Serena news prior, was the talk about what she should be wearing… yes, I just said that.
This lady has just come back to tennis after having a baby, in childbirth she also experienced serious complications. She is probably more body conscious now than ever, and she is an athlete. Hold. She is a world-leading athlete. Can we not be a little more understanding that she might not want to go out in a short tennis skirt?
Has her position not gained her at least this respect?
Whilst still within a year of giving birth, she was back playing all the top tournaments again, and no, she is not winning them, and thankfully so. Because it takes time to recover from the impact of having a child, and not least because you are still up all night caring for your child when you have to go back to work – in most cases well into the child’s 1st year. Honestly, we need to start a normal conversation about what is expected of mothers returning to work.
Does that mean we should drop them from our workforce?
Well, would you drop Serena?
The range of emotional and physical problems with the early years of having children is simply huge. If post-Partum depression, can affect a woman as #strong and #successful as #SerenaWilliams, what are we really expecting, of normal #workingmothers?
For years the conversation about mothers has focused on the physical, getting back into shape, getting back into work. But, what about your emotions?
Do you want to know what real mental toughness is about?
Try leaving your job as the world No.1, and then being ranked No.453 on your return to work.
The ridiculous ranking from the French Open in June meant that Serena had to play all the seeded players first (unlike seeded competitors), so they actually made her return to work harder. Grand Slam tournaments have the option to adjust the players’ ranking differently to World rankings, but they didn’t adjust hers.
You may say that shouldn’t a problem for a player who has been the benchmark of the sport for 20 years – but it can be compared to any mother returning from maternity leave. By making the decision to have a baby, the French Open effectively told Serena that her years of hard work meant nothing. Just take a moment to think about the mental impact of that decision on her.
High ranking women move far fewer times than high ranking men
Without doubt, one of the most consistent trends I see on the CVs of women that reach C-Suite, is that they move very few times in their careers. Most women professionals reaching C-level, have to stay with one employer for 8-10 years at some point, to try to advance themselves either side of childbirth. And sometimes not even childbirth, but just childbearing-age, because they are not promoted properly in that window. It’s like they need to build up brownie points to be able to take time off.
We have to prove we are worth keeping whilst doing the most important job of all.
Serena has been vocal about the decision to not give her a seed ranking at Roland Garros, and the need to protect the ranking of female players who want to start families. This will help to take away the stigma attached to working mums. Serena’s determination to push the issue will help change that rhetoric, as she was not prepared to let her 20-year career go down the drain. Good for her.
Being pregnant is a physical condition that only affects women and should be seen as an exceptional circumstance that does not affect your career.
Thankfully we have a tennis superstar, to start this conversation for the rest of us. Thank you Serena for making a stand, which literally millions of women can’t make.
It is motherhood, and #motherhood alone, that is capable of slowing down Serena. Don’t be unsympathetic, if you have a woman like Serena on your court. The rules are worth flexing sometimes, especially if they were created without women in mind.
Written by: Rana Hein-Hartmann, EMEA Director.