Women Athletes: Have a Baby, Take Your Chances with Your Career


Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, two new moms

Debbie says:

Employers have long resented the fact that women in the work force have this inconvenient habit of having babies, which seems to take time, energy, and focus away from important things like making money for your company. No surprise: sports, which are certainly big business, have the same problem.

In February, I blogged about Serena Williams’ narrow and self-propelled escape from life-threatening complications of giving birth, and the higher risk faced by all black women.

Now that Williams is back on the courts, Lindsay Gibbs at Think Progress is shedding light on how women athletes are treated after having babies. After the tennis powers-that-be announced that Williams would have to enter the tournament unseeded (i.e., as if she had no tennis victories to her credit), critics up through and including Ivanka Trump complained:

The outrage cycle was effective. Wimbledon seeded Williams No. 25 for the Championships — not high enough for the liking of many, but far better than nothing — and the U.S. Open announced that it would change its seeding protocol to account for pregnancies. Behold, the power of Serena! Mission accomplished, right?

Well, not so fast. Because when it comes to maternity rights for professional female athletes, seeding for top players isn’t even in the top half of the list of their biggest concerns. And the outsized focus on Williams’ seeding folderol could end up distracting attention from the biggest problems that pregnant athletes face.

Gibbs acknowledges that seeding is important, after she lays out three issues which have more negative effect on more women athletes:

1) maternity leave and/or salary for women in team sports (deeply insufficient) and for women in individual sports (nearly nonexistent).

Just last week, Stacey Lewis, a two-time major champion on the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association Tour (LPGA), made a landmark announcement: One of her main sponsors, KPMG, is going to pay Lewis the full value of her contract while she is off of the LPGA Tour on maternity leave. Believe it or not, this is the first time this has happened in LPGA Tour history.

2) child care provisions: “Many individual teams have very family-friendly atmospheres, but that is not the same as actually assisting with child care.” Apparently, to cite one major inequity, men’s tennis has better child care than women’s tennis, because more men historically have travelled with their families.

3) protected ranking, which should be handled differently for maternity leave than for injury.

Women like Stacey Lewis, like tennis player Victoria Azarenka, and like Serena Williams, who are willing to compete for what’s fair off the golf course or tennis court as well as on it, have a long challenge ahead of them. Fortunately, the same competitive drive that makes for great athletes can make for great world-changers. Watch these women, and women like them, make sports a better place for new mothers.