Watching Serena Williams play tennis is a work-out in itself. You can feel her power and skill in every swing. I have found myself, on more than one occasion, standing, swaying, and even screaming at the TV – anxious for the resolution of each point won. Perhaps most of all, in watching Serena Williams play tennis, you see raw passion. In each swing, each serve, each volley, is endless strength, skill, and passion. And my favorite part? It’s like she can’t hold it back. It flows out of her. Hands down, Serena Williams is one of the best athletes of our time.
Yet, when Serena Williams stepped away from the court in February of 2017 (just one month after winning the Australian Open, while pregnant, no less) to become a mother for the first time, I doubt she anticipated that this transition would cost her position and title, forcing her to return to the courts in the lowly rank of 453rd in the world. Women have sacrificed more, and will continue to do so, to become mothers. But the extremity of this situation – indeed, the farce of it – rankled me, and I couldn’t help but add my voice to the countless others decrying such a turn of events.
So what to say about this? Sure, I could talk about the inequity of begrudging female athletes the joy of becoming mothers – without fear of losing their positions. Or, I could lament how this situation seems to cast aside all the good work Billie Jean King did for the sport of tennis and for female athletes, all those years ago. But I’d rather focus on the more pernicious undertone of these events – that we, as a society, are unable to view women in positions of authority as more than just the position they hold.
And this doesn’t just happen in the world of professional sports, it’s pervasive in the corporate world too. The most recent and notable example must be the saga of Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo, which has been well-documented. Summarily, these ‘powerful women taking maternity leave’ stories seem to emphasize and prioritize the striking dichotomy of “CEO” vs “Mother.” Because, how can a woman be both? And isn’t that just it? We focus our attention on asking successful women how they manage it all – but take for granted that powerful, male CEOs can be fathers too.
I am often asked what it is like to be a “working mom.” It’s a funny question! And I amuse myself thinking about the response men would have to the same. Indeed, we don’t think about “working dads” in the same way. Working mothers have bias working against them, and as the NY Times puts it, it is “often casual, open and unapologetic.”
I recall the first time I took leave from work, to bring my daughter home from China. She was two at the time, and the transition was not easy. But it was made more manageable by an employer and colleagues who supported me, validating the importance of my continued contribution to the team. Now, as my husband and I prepare to bring our second daughter home, I consider how odd it would be to know that upon returning I would no longer be Grovo’s Chief Learning Officer – but that I would be asked to interview all over again and “work my way up” through the ranks. Utter nonsense, right? So why would we ask the same of Serena Williams?
Ultimately, the argument (in my humble opinion) is one of perception. What we are willing to perceive when we look at individuals in positions of great authority or leadership. Do I perceive a woman CEO as only that? A CEO? Or can I extend my view to encompass the other aspects of her life? As for me? I’m never just one thing. I’m never just a Chief Learning Officer, a doctoral candidate, a mom. I’m all of those things, all the time, every single day. And it’s all those facets that make me really, really good at my job. So why do we insist on viewing powerful women as single-faceted? In a recent Instagram post, Serena nails this sentiment, saying: “It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby… finding that balance with kids is a true art.” As a learning practitioner, I wonder how shifting this perspective will help us to build more truly inclusive teams, and ultimately smarter companies able to solve bigger problems.
Already, we’re starting to see some progress. The U.S. Open announced it would factor pregnancy leave into its seedings from now on, and gave Serena a seed that is nine spots higher than her ranking would have otherwise placed her. We still have a ways to go though, which is why we at Grovo created a series of Microlearning content that promotes the value of family-friendly workplaces. With the help of real working parents (myself included), we’ve outlined strategies for expecting parents to effectively plan their parental leave, and smoothly transition out of (and back into) their roles. I urge you to check out one of those lessons, What Is Work-Life Integration?, which is available for free.
So perhaps, when Serena returns to the U.S. Open on August 27 (an event she’s won six times) we might cheer a little louder. And maybe, we’ll count ourselves lucky because we get to witness the work of true champion – who is also a mom.