Did Serena Williams Lose the US Open due to Sexism?

By Amy Lankenau McPherson with Deb Phillips

This weekend's women's US Open final was gripping for its outstanding performances by both Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams – but it was most noteworthy for the penalties Serena suffered for her "bad behavior" on the court. If Serena Williams were a male player, would the umpire's actions have been different?

Billie Jean King has weighed in at The Washington Post. In "Serena is still treated differenty than male athletes,"  she holds that Serena was indeed treated differently and was seen as “hysterical” instead of how her male counterparts would have been treated, as “outspoken”. Billie Jean King argues that Serena was definitely treated unfairly this weekend by a sexist umpire. John McEnroe is notorious for his bad behavior and antics on the court, and in looking at his history of penalties, he was not treated as strictly as we saw Serena Williams being treated this weekend.

Looking at this issue more broadly, from a human resources and workplace perspective – we can ask the question: are men and women treated differently at work even when they exhibit the same behavior? According to a recent HBR article, the answer is a resounding "YES!" The authors argue that gender bias in the workplace needs to be addressed through hard data rather than due to anecdotal evidence. In this study, men and women were given sensors to measure conversation frequency with senior management, networks in the workplace, and speech patterns. While it emerged that there were few differences in the behavior of the men and women in this study, the outcomes in terms of advancement were striking: in the company that was studied for this article, women made up roughly 35%–40% of the entry-level workforce but a smaller percentage at each subsequent level. Women made up only 20% of people at the two highest seniority levels at this organization.”

Sadly, we have been working on this issue for decades and women (and especially women of color) continue to face unconscious bias at work – especially if they are in STEM fields. Mentoring, sponsorship and skill support are helpful but often cannot budge a culture. What’s needed is a nuts-and-bolts diversity strategy at all points in the pipeline, coupled with an organization-wide focus on inclusion, equity and respect. The #metoo movement has helped raise awareness of these serious and persistent issues. Now is the time for organizations to take a hard look at their recruiting and promotion practices and get serious about turning diversity and inclusion plans into action.

So we circle back to Serena Williams – a new mom in the workplace. Was she less committed to her work? No. Was she treated differently at work? Absolutely. Is there something organizations and society can do about it? Yes.



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