One of many worries during a woman’s life is finding the right time to start a family. Recently, I was discussing this topic with friends from previous athletic teams, and we found that most of our teammates who decided to resume their careers after having a baby were at the peak performance of their careers with more than five years still to play the sport on a high level. Most of the athletes who continued their careers after delivering a child, were playing on elite leagues that provided an income that they could comfortably live with.
Serena Williams’ case is an example of the obstacles women face once they decide to start a family. Who would have thought that the highest paid tennis athlete was not going to be forgiven by the system? In 2018, the seven-time champion was “given” the 25th seed at Wimbledon after a 13- month maternity leave. While out on maternity, her ranking plunged from #1 to outside of the top 400, despite winning the Australian open in 2017 while being two months pregnant.
While each of the Grand Slam events has the prerogative to award its 32 seeds regardless of ranking to ensure a balanced tournament, Wimbledon decided to grant Serena Williams a seeded position – a very different approach from the French Open where she was penalized by her absence. For Wimbledon, this was a win-win situation because they wanted to avoid having an elite player face her during the early rounds of the competition.
As in every controversy, there are two sides to the story. The 32nd ranked player did not agree with Wimbledon’s decision around Williams as she was removed from seeding as a result and felt it was not fair to be bumped by a currently not ranked player, regardless of her being the former number one tennis player of the world for 319 straight weeks. Serena Williams made it to the finals ultimately, but this issue is worth exploring.
Although there are laws aimed to prevent discrimination and preserve a woman’s job while pregnant, like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), there will always arise cases for which there are no precedent like in Serena Williams’ situation. Women should not be deterred from starting a family or raising one to avoid forfeiting their success, standing or development. Let’s start the conversation and find opportunities to raise awareness and leverage allies to change this prevalent, often silent perspective around pregnancy and working mothers.