As Serena Williams returns to tournament courts following pregnancy and maternity leave, she is finding herself in much the same position as millions of women who face the “motherhood penalty.” The fact that someone who is among the greatest athletes of all time is still subject to this says more about society-wide challenges for working mothers than it does about Williams actual performance—and it’s time we address that.
Where Williams, as a new mother returning from leave, stands in the world of professional tennis was made clear by the French Tennis Federation: When ranking for the upcoming French Open, the federation did not give Williams a seed. This puts her at a huge disadvantage for the tournament, which is her formal return to the courts after welcoming daughter Olympia with husband Alexis Ohanian in September.
In other words, by taking time off for pregnancy, childbirth and the recovery from life-threatening complications she experienced, Williams dropped a full 453 spots in the eyes of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
This isn’t just a vanity metric, either: By going into the tournament unseeded, Williams will face higher-ranked opponents much earlier, which makes it that much more challenging to climb back to the top.
Although we don’t doubt Williams is ready for the challenge, this is unfortunately representative of the situation that thousands of lower-profile working mothers find themselves in on a yearly basis. According to a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Sociology, working mothers are penalized in the form of “lower perceived competence and commitment, higher professional expectations, lower likelihood of hiring and promotion, and lower recommended salaries.”
Specifically, when it comes to promotions, moms who have gone on maternity leave are 8.2 times less likely to be recommended for promotions than other women in their office. Many moms returning to employment also find their workplaces to be much less hospitable—with one report from Great Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission finding 11% of mothers are forced out of their jobs by outright dismissal or such poor treatment they felt they had no choice.
With decades of potential working years ahead of most mothers, these effects snowball. According to the National Women’s Law Center, even moms who just take a short maternity leave make $0.71 per every dollar that a dad in the same position earns.
The pay penalty is less likely to impact Williams than most moms, but the effects of her virtual demotion are still significant—and send an unfortunate message: By treating Williams’ leave as a 14-month vacation, tennis officials are essentially discouraging women from making their own family plans, taking time to bond with their babies and giving themselves space to properly recover.
The outcry over Williams going unseeded at the French Open has been loud and swift, leading the WTA to reportedly consider rule changes that would protect highly ranked players from losing their seeding due to maternity leave. Her situation is also pushing the conversation about the motherhood penalty into the spotlight—and all we have to say is that it’s about time.
Hopefully, this could help change things for those of us who aren’t great athletes, but are trying to be great working mamas.
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