Venus Williams has earned her way to be one of the most privileged women in tennis (if not the world)—but even her privilege didn’t always add up to equal earnings. As the tennis legend wrote in an op-ed for British Vogue timed in tandem with Women’s Equal Pay Day on March 24, her own battle to close the gender pay gap in tennis paralleled that of women everywhere, who, on average, make 82 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.
“When I won Wimbledon for the first time in 2000, the men’s singles champion received £477,500 while the women’s singles champion earned £430,000,” Williams recalls. “From then on, I felt compelled to campaign for equality for women.”
As Williams notes, that battle didn’t begin with her but began raging in tennis when the sport became fully professional in the late ’60s. It was pioneer Billie Jean King who also spearheaded the conversation around equality throughout the sport, not only playing in the famed “Battle of the Sexes,” but forming the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to give voice and collective strength to women tennis players globally. Still, it would take 39 years to achieve parity in prize money for women players, with Williams becoming the first to do so in 2007—upon her fourth Wimbledon championship.
“I firmly believe that sport mirrors life and life mirrors sport,” she now writes. “The lack of equality and equal opportunities in tennis is a symptom of the obstacles women face around the world,”
Williams’ argument is supported by grim statistics amid the ongoing pandemic. In 2019, a World Economic Forum study estimated that it would take approximately 257 years to close the pay gap. An October 2020 report between The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress revealed that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic upon women—who have been forced out of the workforce at four times the rate of their male counterparts—could set progress back another generation unless drastic actions are taken.
“Closing the economic gender gap requires action at a national and international level as well as corporate,” Williams writes, adding:
Some fixes can be implemented more quickly than others. For a start, while women are often underrepresented in senior positions in firms, they are overrepresented in low-paying jobs so increasing the minimum wage is a priority. Then there’s the urgent need for transparency; if women don’t know they aren’t being paid fairly, how can they do anything about it? Childcare and medical leave also need to be expanded to create equal opportunities for women as they are more likely to take time off work to look after their family.
And just like the calls for racial justice, the injustice on gender pay disparity isn’t women’s job to fix, posits Williams. “Sexism isn’t a women’s issue any more than racism is a Black issue,” she says. “Men need to understand gender equality is about equal opportunities for women rather than men relinquishing power.”
Most importantly, it benefits everyone’s bottom line. With women still assuming the brunt of childcare responsibilities, and Black women more likely to also be heads of the household but even further behind in equal pay (62 cents on the dollar, to date), one thing is clear, says the tennis champion: “When women are doing well, the family does well and so does the economy—we all win”