Why Serena Williams’ walk away from tennis hits home for working moms everywhere

Serena Williams

As a world-class athlete, businesswoman, philanthropist, and mother, Serena Williams knows what it takes to win. She has earned her place as one of the top tennis players in history with 23 Grand Slam titles.

With decades of success, some were surprised to learn that she’s stepping away from tennis after the US Open in a few weeks. But for working moms everywhere, her message struck a relatable chord. 

Williams describes the gender-specific weight all women know and carry as they juggle their careers and family responsibilities.

In a cover story for Vogue magazine, Williams said that as a woman and a mother, she feels like she has to choose between tennis and growing her family. “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair,” she wrote. “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family.”

Williams goes on to describe being two months pregnant when she won the Australian Open in 2017. But as she turns 41 she says “something’s got to give.” 

Serena isn’t alone: 54% of working moms said they felt like they could not “give 100%” at work because they were balancing work and parenting responsibilities, compared with 43% of working dads according to a 2020 Pew study

Working moms were also more likely than dads to say they needed to reduce their work hours because of parenting responsibilities (34% vs. 26%) and to report being treated as if they weren’t committed to their work because they have children (19% vs. 11%).

As the world reacts to Williams’ decision, MBAchic asked Professor of Practice at Brown University, Dr. Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, Ph.D. to weigh in on the news as it relates to women across the country. 

“This is an issue that impacts all working moms across all industries and organizational levels, not just those in the C-suite or those who are successful entrepreneurs – in fact, many working moms find their competence and priorities questioned when they seek promotion or launch ventures,” reflects Ozkazanc-Pan. 

As a diversity, culture, and inclusion expert dedicated to researching the future of work, Ozkazanc-Pan studies the gender work gap. She says she is struck by the lack of support working mothers have today despite the past five decades that corporate America has been making an effort towards real progress. 

“With some exceptions, these efforts have not resulted in large-scale changes to the expectations associated with promotions, and the gender pay gap,” says Ozkazanc-Pan. 

So, what’s next for Williams? 

She said she’s “evolving away from tennis” to other interests, like bringing her champion mindset to growing her business empire. There is no doubt she will be able to make as big of a mark on the venture capital world as she has on the sports world. Serena Ventures came to life in 2014, with a focus on founders from historically underrepresented groups. 

“This year we raised $111 million of outside financing, from banks, private individuals, and family offices,” Williams said. 

78% of companies in the firm’s portfolio were started by women or people of color, Williams explained in Vogue, while 16 companies are valued at at least $1 billion. A few startups that got a check from Serena Ventures: MasterClass, Impossible Foods, Noom, and Tonal. 

Is there a solution in sight for professional women across the country? 

According to Professor Ozkazanc-Pan, the journey toward narrowing the gender gap may be complicated, but the answer is simple. 

“Corporate America and investors need to be intentional about supporting working mothers who bring diverse experiences, ideas and value to organizations,” she suggests. 

“Limiting their ability to contribute to the economy not only limits the success of corporations but hinders the U.S. ability to stay competitive in a global economy.”

Serena Williams

Photo from PxHere

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  1. Sharing this with our MBA Moms group — we spoke with Brown Professor Banu Ozkazanc-Pan about Serena Williams “evolving” away from tennis. 🎾

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