Serena Williams on International Women’s Day: ‘We Must Band Together to Fight for What’s Fair’
Today, March 8th, marks International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements across social, economic, cultural and political spheres. Every year, I look at IWD as a reinvigorated call to action: together, we can accelerate global efforts to reach true gender parity.
In our fast-paced world, expectations for women continue to rise, as do workplace demands and, unfortunately, double standards. Navigating it all is especially tough for working moms, myself included—I feel the pressure both on and off the court. Even with all the resources I’m incredibly blessed to have, motherhood comes with so many unexpected challenges, especially when it’s time to go back to work.
As a board member of SurveyMonkey, I encouraged the company to conduct a pair of surveys that would help us better understand the adversity American women face when it comes to balancing their professional and personal lives. One focuses on the experiences of working parents, while the other delves into those of all women in the workforce. After reviewing the results, one thing is clear: many of us are facing strikingly similar challenges.
For starters, our data show that women are four times more likely to say they provide more childcare than their male partner—pulling a double shift at work and home. This contributes to the fact that nearly half of women say they have sacrificed career goals for their family. I know I did. More than half of moms feel guilty leaving their children to go to work and a third say their job makes it challenging to do the things they want and need to do for their family. Forget the cliché of ‘having it all,’ the reality is, women are trying to do it all.
The surveys also revealed that there’s a 10 percentage point difference in the share of men vs. the share of women who say they are “extremely” or “very” comfortable taking risks to advance their careers. This is something that’s really important for me to emphasize: it’s OK to take a risk for your professional growth. You have to make yourself uncomfortable and push your limits to find out what you are truly capable of accomplishing. Whether you’re a top executive, talented artist or passionate athlete, the risk is always yours to take.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of being the best tennis player in the world… but I also dreamed of having a family. The dream was not divided—it was to be successful in both arenas. I want to stay in this game long enough for Olympia to watch me, cheer me on, and be proud to say, “That’s my Mom.” I want her and all women out there to know you can be whatever you want to be. Dream big. The sky is the limit. Take risks.
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Let’s talk about perfection. I want to make it clear that perfection is an impossible goal and should never be a true pursuit in life. And this is something I’ve had to come to terms with myself. Now that I have Olympia, she is my absolute priority—spending as much time as possible with her every day is so important to me. But I’m still training to win Grand Slams and sometimes I have to make hard choices about how I spend my time. I’ve cried over Olympia so many times that I’ve lost count. I cried when I stopped breastfeeding. I sat with Olympia in my arms, I talked to her, we prayed about it, and I told her, “Mommy has to do this.” I cried when I missed Olympia’s first steps because I was in training. I’m honest about my struggles as a working mom because I want other women out there to know they are not alone. We have to show ourselves and our female counterparts compassion and reality.
While I think all women are superheroes, we are not superhuman and we need each other’s support. We need to give each other grace when we fall short—and when society sets unrealistic expectations or our workplaces have antiquated rules. We must band together and fight for what’s fair.
That’s particularly true when it comes to our careers. In our surveys, most women agree that we need to support each other at work now more than ever. For 42% of women, the kind of help they seek most is mentorship. And while 84% of women think other women’s support is critical to advancing their careers, many do not feel enabled by their female colleagues. Why? The number one response is competitiveness, followed by a belief that women are unlikely to ask for support.
When I was getting back into training last year, I needed a lot of physical recovery. But not only was the work taxing on my healing body, it was emotionally draining too. I felt overwhelming guilt whenever I wanted to take “me” time, with the nagging feeling that any extra moments should be spent with Olympia. When things were at their most challenging, the unwavering support of my mom, sisters, and friends helped me through. I want to remind all women reading this about the importance of supporting one another through the highs, lows, laughs, and tears, and always asking for help when it’s needed. Trust me when I say: we’ve all been there before.
Not surprisingly, nearly one in three women say they feel that they have to hide their emotions at work to be taken seriously. This double standard is seen in the board room and on the tennis court. Women are deemed “emotional,” “hysterical,” or “aggressive” while men who behave the same way face no such consequences. They are perceived in a completely different light. This is a huge barrier women face each and every day and we need to continue calling out these stereotypes and behaviors to make true progress.
For these reasons and many more, I’m working to break down all the double standards that we face on a daily basis. Women deserve to be given the same respect and opportunities as our male counterparts. We are entitled to the same open doors.
When I returned to tennis from maternity leave, I was penalized for taking time off: my ranking dropped from #1 in the world to #453. That required me to face tougher competition earlier in the French Open, which led to a pectoral injury that forced me to drop out. I fought hard personally, making it to the Wimbledon final shortly after, but I also fought hard publicly against the biased ranking system. We must stop penalizing women when they return to their careers after having children.
My dreams are just beginning and being a mom is a part of that now. I want Olympia to see and remember her mom winning a Grand Slam title. I want her to know that my work fulfills me, that I’m proud and passionate about what I do even if I’m not perfect at it, and that she should never give up on her dreams. I want her to see a world of possibilities at her feet and to believe in those first steps she took when I was training, every time she takes a leap toward her goals— however big the risk.
On International Women’s Day, let’s promise to come together and support one another in honor of all the groundbreaking women who came before us—and those who are proudly following our lead.
*SurveyMonkey and Serena Williams’ workplace surveys of 12,000+ Americans conducted in September 2018 and February 2019.