Double Standards and Sex Stereotypes? Just ask Serena Williams.

By: Amy Epstein Gluck

Settle in people, and grab some coffee because I have a lot to say today about Saturday’s Grand Slam between the legendary Serena Williams and upcoming powerhouse Naomi Osaka.

Before you ask, “But, Amy, what does this have to do with employment and the workplace?”

The tennis court is Serena Williams’ workplace. It’s her job.

Serena (I’m calling her that; I feel like she wouldn’t mind) is known as an outspoken woman.

Remember, when she spoke her mind in 2016 and wrote about the lack of equal pay in professional sports? As I noted here, Serena penned an open letter “to all incredible women who strive for excellence” about the continued sex discrimination and wage inequality in professional sports:

When the subject of equal pay comes up, it frustrates me because I know firsthand that I, like you, have done the same work and made the same sacrifices as our male counterparts. I would never want my daughter to be paid less than my son for the same work. Nor would you.

Unequal treatment is not just about missed opportunities. It also occurs through consequences, punishments, and disciplinary measures that women face that are not imposed on men. That is a big part of what happened Saturday.

So, come on, get to it, what happened at the U.S. Open?

Ok, so, the chair umpire, i.e., the person who calls the shots in a tennis match, tried to teach Serena a lesson. She deigned to express her emotions and talk back to a man who had power over her fate, and he certainly punished her for it.

The Atlantic explains that the ump first gave Serena a warning for “coaching,” an act the ump saw her coach allegedly do. Not her. For those of you who don’t follow pro tennis, this is not allowed, but per Serena’s coach’s interview after the game, every single coach in every single game coaches. After the game, Serena’s coach said he did coach, but Serena had no idea. She was busy…um, playing?

After she’s penalized for coaching, which, if anything, usually merits a warning rather than a full-blown violation, Serena tells the ump, calmly and nicely, “that wasn’t coaching. It was a thumbs up. I’m not coached. I don’t cheat.” In her mind, she and the ump resolved the issue without a violation to her. Not so.

Then, she smashed her racket in frustration after missing a serve. She didn’t yell, didn’t scream; she just slammed the racket down. The ump gave her a full penalty violation in the form of a point to Osaka.

Serena confronted the ump saying that the racket smash should have been a first violation. After all, male players do it all the time. The ump wasn’t having it. It was a second violation because of the “coaching.” Yet coaching is rarely, if ever, called out against male champions.

Upset and frustrated, Serena said, loudly, she has never cheated, and angrily and forcefully repeated, “you owe me an apology.”

The ump could care less, and Serena responded: “I explained that to you. For you to attack my character, something is wrong. It’s wrong,” and then, the kicker, Serena announced, “you stole a point from me. You’re a thief.”

At which point, the ump issued a code violation against Serena for “verbal abuse,” which resulted in an entire game penalty, and the match went down in flames from there. He penalized Serena with The. Entire. Game. It seems the ump did not like being spoken to in such a way by “Mrs. Williams.”

(Yes, when citing Serena for these “violations,” the ump repeatedly called her “Mrs. Williams.” Isn’t Mrs. Williams Serena’s mama? Watch it for yourself here.)

Even the commentators were stunned by the entire turn of events and stated, as did Serena in the subsequent press conference, that a lot of men have done the same and worse, with no penalty; nothing like this has never happened in tennis before. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“A game penalty in a grand slam final is unprecedented.”

If “100% of the coaches in 100% of the matches” coach their players, according to Serena’s coach, then WHY THE DOUBLE STANDARD?

The “coaching violation,” as The Cut explains, was “a call that felt designed to provoke and diminish perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time, during a year in which she has made a return to the sport after having had a baby, come close to dying after a postpartum hematoma, and lost her No. 1 seed as a result of her absence from the game.”

Serena called out this double standard, too, at the press conference when she reminded us that Alize Cornet was penalized for briefly taking her shirt off in order to turn it around (showing her black – gasp – sports bra!), because it was backwards. Male tennis players take their shirts off all the time with impunity.

For Serena, the choice of penalties and the choice to impose them, meant she lost the game, the chance to break a world record, and it robbed Osaka of a clean win had she won on her own merits. For many, the umpire inserted himself into a game in a way that robbed viewers from seeing the best possible match between these two players. The result—two women of color, ***ed.

But tell us more about this double standard. Isn’t that gender inequality?

Sure sounds like it, and it matters not that the microaggressions against Serena worked to the benefit of another woman. When a man engages in a fiery discourse with an umpire or, dare I say, a judge, it’s passion, aggression, and assertiveness—all qualities prized in a professional athlete or litigator.

Yet, when a woman goes there? Women are told to “calm down,” pegged as “difficult to work with,” and my personal favorite, “abrasive.” One of my fantastic partners experienced this very phenomenon last month during a call with two male lawyers, and, when one spoke over her, she asked him not to interrupt her and to let her finish explaining why his client had a less than meritorious case. He responded, “you need to calm down,” as if she had no control over her emotions.


As I wrote here, Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg explained in this op-ed:

We’ve both seen it happen again and again. When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.

And, when a black woman does it, it’s a penalty. As Billie Jean King tweeted:

Several things went very wrong during the @usopen Women’s Finals today. …When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.

But why is this about Serena’s sex and race? Consider The Cut’s answer, which touches upon the “angry Black woman” stereotype: in making the coaching call during a match in which this newbie looked likely to beat Serena fairly, the umpire insinuated that Serena was not playing fair. “That made her livid. And one thing black women are never allowed to be without consequence is livid.”

Still unsure? Some of you may be stuck on the fact that she did break her racquet, point her finger at the umpire, called him names, and spoke harshly to him. Yeah, so what? Look at the history of men’s tennis:

  1. In 1991, Jimmy Connors screamed at the chair umpire, “You’re a bum! I’m out here playing my butt off at 39 years old” and later called him “an abortion.” No penalty.
  2. John McEnroe is known for having shattered a thousand rackets and hurling countless invectives at umpires. “His anger was his calling card, a trademark,” explains The Cut author.
  3. Last year, Rafael Nadal told off the same chair umpire without it costing him a match. Something to think about, huh? Perhaps, as stated in this article in WaPo, “But he wasn’t going to take it from a woman pointing a finger at him and speaking in a tone of aggression.”
  4. And what about Nick Kyrgios’s outbursts, slut-shaming of another WTA player, and breaking a racquet that apparently injured a ball-boy recently in Ohio.
  5. One respected umpire came down from his chair to give Kyrgios a pep talk – coaching, no?

Then, the ultimate: in an ESPN interview last night, the president of the United States Tennis Association, defended Williams stating, “We have to have consistency, because when you look at what the women, in this case Serena, is feeling, we watch the guys do this all the time. They are badgering the chair umpires on the changeover. Nothing happens.” Whoa.

This happens in traditional workplaces, too.

In professional tennis, men especially have violated the rules time and again, yet rarely faced consequences similar to the ones Serena endured. “Women are made to understand, all the time, how their reasonable expression of vexation might cost them the game. Women’s challenge to male authority, and especially black women’s challenge to authority, is automatically understood as a threat, a form of defiance that must be quashed.”

As I wrote here, and in this blog about recent studies:

  • Women experience a workplace skewed in favor of men;
  • Women of color, particularly Black women, face even greater challenges;
  • Women and men see the state of women—and the success of gender diversity efforts—differently; men have a more positive assessment that often clashes with reality; and
  • Women are 24% less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders, and 62% of women of color say the lack of an influential mentor holds them back.

Moreover, women of color are more likely to contend with inequitable consequences based on this same double standard. Indeed, one of my most brilliant and successful partners, who happens to be a woman of color, told me that at one firm, she was caustically and publicly reprimanded by a partner in front an entire floor of the firm’s lawyers for approaching matters in the same way she saw her male peers approach them. The reason? She was “overly aggressive.”

Of course, her conduct was the same as her male colleagues’ behavior.


What is it going to take to get true equality in the workplace? More and more training? Being an ally and supporting women in your workplace without subjecting anyone to a double standard? Sexual inequality and discrimination and unequal pay affect everyone by creating a culture of divisiveness and disrespect. A workplace negatively impacts the productivity of all employees by creating and enforcing stereotypes of how women should behave. Plus, employment discrimination arising out of gender-based stereotypes—like women being “hysterical” or “overly aggressive”— is illegal.

During a post-game interview, Serena was calm after her loss and said, “I’m here to fight for women’s rights and women’s equality,” she said. “The fact that I have to go through this is an example. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”

That’s right, Serena.

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.