Serena Williams is undeniably the ultimate athlete — across both genders. The number of tournaments she has won speaks to her athleticism alone, and she has done this with grace and not a lot of fan fare…until recently. For those of you who missed the US Open this past weekend, you missed an amazing performance of resiliency, assertiveness, and courage that sent chills down my spine.
Serena has come under fire for challenging the umpire and standing her ground after being accused of cheating, breaking her racket, calling the umpire a “thief” and having a game taken away from her as a result. “I’d rather lose than cheat.” is a line that still sticks with me today.
So often, women of color are described as aggressive or out of control when we speak up for ourselves. Note that our reactions are no different from that of our male counterparts — regardless of color. Still, society punishes us in our work environments daily for any such acts, forcing us in many ways to be “submissive.” Serena faced it this past weekend and stood her ground, refusing to submit. She should be applauded…not converted to a caricature with exaggerated features as an Australian magazine did recently. (THAT is a whole other post!)
When women assert ourselves, the media lashes back with comments such as “lost control” or “very emotional”. Serena was neither of those things. She was ANGRY at the false allegations made against her by the umpire. ANGRY at the constant ways in which her athleticism has been questioned (more drug tests that any other athlete in tennis). ANGRY at the continued calls against her by umpires that other athletes are not subjected to.
Serena elevated the dialogue regarding the unequal treatment of women in sports. It’s not just the compensation, but the culture. For example, a man can change his shirt on the court, but a woman can’t. Unfortunately, this unequal treatment starts early. My son can practice soccer in the rain, but soccer practice is canceled for my daughters’ team. REALLY?!?! We can teach our sons resiliency, but teach our daughters daintiness. Not in my house!
Watching the last moments of the Women’s US Open unfold, I felt the pain with Serena. So many of us did. Because so many of us deal with some level of sexism in our own way each day. We are labeled “aggressive” by our peers and managers in our careers. I dealt with it for over a decade in corporate America…and still do at times when dealing with partners. Now, when someone attempts to use the words “emotional” “aggressive” “hair on fire” or any other sexist term to describe, I take those opportunities to educate them on the definition of assertive.
So, ladies…don’t feed the beast by self-describing yourself as aggressive. We are not that at all. We are asserting ourselves by expressing our views and not allowing others to walk over us or take our views as their own. Serena sparked a conversation that will break barriers and empower other women athletes to do the same, and I hope she inspired you to be the agent of change in your career as well.