Wow. I can’t believe it. Serena Williams has been mommy- tracked.
Apparently, 23 Grand Slam titles, celebrity status and a net worth north of $160 million aren’t enough to insulate her from the type of bias women often face when they return to work after having or adopting a baby.
Williams was ranked No. 1 in the world when she left the pro tour to give birth to her now- eight-month-old daughter. Now, more than a year later, she is ranked 453rd and French Open organizers have refused to seed her this weekend as she returns for her first major since the complicated birth that nearly killed her.
Williams, quite simply, is being penalized for having a baby. French officials could have opted to seed Williams, and it didn’t have to be at No. 1. But they announced Monday that they would follow convention and give players seeds based on WTA rankings.
By refusing to give her an exception, French officials are dismissing the 36-year-old Williams as a competitor, a risky and ridiculous notion for anyone who has ever seen her play. They are trying to put her on the so-called mommy track, which sadly is an all-too-common occurrence in all workplaces, not just sports.
“Discrimination against Mom is the greatest form of gender bias, and multiple studies confirm this,” said Dina Bakst, the co-founder of A Better Balance, a national advocacy group dedicated to advancing the rights of working families. “What it looks like is new mothers encounter assumptions that they are no longer competent or committed to their jobs after they have a baby. They are more likely to take a salary hit, they’re not recommended for higher positions. This is something that is a widespread problem that women across the economic spectrum face.”
Williams was able to play in the tournament only because of a WTA “special rankings rule” that allows players who were on maternity leave or had lengthy injury recoveries to use their previous rankings to enter up to eight tournaments within a year of their returns. Currently, it is up to individual tournaments to decide where to seed them. Entering the tournament without a seed means she likely will face a top player in the early rounds, forcing a possible quick exit.
Putting extra pressure on an athlete to prove herself after pregnancy is discriminatory, and the notion that motherhood and an athletic career do not mix is just plain wrong.
The 2016 U.S. Olympic team included 10 moms. The WNBA has had mothers playing since its inaugural season, when Sheryl Swoopes came back six weeks after giving birth to play for the Houston Comets. And in tennis, Kim Clijsters won three of her four majors after having her first child.
“When you come back after having a baby, there’s a lot of people who are going to doubt you,” Liberty guard Bria Hartley said. “For me, in New York, they really worked with me and did a good job. It could be a different experience for other players on other teams. It shouldn’t be a penalty to have a baby. A lot of people try to push their doubts on you or — like with Serena — seed you in the 400s. You just have to be strong-minded.”
The WTA told The Associated Press this past week that it is considering a rule change that would add protected seeding for highly ranked players returning from maternity leave. The earliest the rule change could take effect is next year.
Williams has yet to talk publicly about the fact that she isn’t seeded, but you can bet she will.
Williams has always been a trailblazer, and in motherhood, she has been no different. In January, she revealed just how difficult her childbirth and adjustment to motherhood was, opening the door to public discussion that many believed was long overdue. Now she has a chance to take that a step further and cast a light on the way women are treated after they return to work.
Said Bakst: “The long-term consequences of this happening to women are often devastating. The lost income over time means mothers are left with less money in retirement. It’s not just unfair, it’s an economic issue that impacts women and their families.”
Even those at the very top of the economic food chain.
“Discrimination against mom is the greatest form of gender bias and multiple studies confirm this.”
— Dina Bakst, A Better Balance advocacy group