Is Serena Williams right to claim sexism?

It is easy to draw parallels between the discrimination Serena Williams pointed out in heated dispute during the US Open final and discrimination against women, especially black women, face during their jobs. This past Saturday, during the final, where Naomi Osaka beat Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion, Williams became outraged when the umpire, Carlos Ramos, penalized her for breaking certain rules, of which men are rarely punished. Williams called Ramos unfair because of what she perceived as sexism in the umpire’s decisions.

First, Ramos gave Williams a code violation penalty for “coaching” after ruling that Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gave her hand signals from the stands—something which men are rarely punished for and umpires generally just warn male players for. Next, angered by this call, Williams smashed her racket, earning her another penalty of one-point. After, this new penalty, she confronted Ramos, saying, “You stole a point from me and you are a thief.” This statement caused Ramos to penalize her by suspending her for a game for verbal abuse.

On top of all this, the US Open later announced that it was hitting Williams with $17,000 in fines for the three violations and the situation opened the door for her to be racially depicted by the media as an “angry black woman” and as a “hysterical” woman for how she reacted.

After Williams’s loss, during a news conference, she commented that she has seen several male players call other umpires, “several things,” and explained:

“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark… He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women.”

In Williams’s fight as a women’s rights, she was not alone. The tennis legend and equal rights advocate, Billie Jean King, agreed. King wrote:

“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, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

CNN sports analyst Christine Brennan, also agreed that women are not being treated equally in tennis. Brennan commented:

“We know that there’s quite a history to it. Think of John McEnroe, think of Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi. These men all berated chair umpires, famously so. Commercials have been made. McEnroe has done, ‘you can’t be serious’ and all the other tirades, top of his lungs over the years and none of them received a game penalty… Would [the umpire] have done that with a man? History has said, no. He would not have done that with a man.”

Moreover, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, Steve Simon, also backed up Williams when she highlighted the sexism of the umpire that day. And even the male US tennis professional Andy Roddick, took to Twitter admitting, “I’ve regrettably said worse and I’ve never gotten a game penalty.”

Too often, women are not allowed a bad day at the office. Or to be precise, if we have a bad day we cannot usually risk expressing anger or sadness about it. Most of the time women feel that it is not worth trying to explain racism or sexism at work and they swallow their pride, grow a thick skin, and get the job done as best they can. Moreover, as most women know, speaking up generally will brand her as a “bitch” or the like, and speaking up as a black woman may invite the label “aggressive,” which is a racially loaded term.

As observers, we only see a fraction of the discrimination against high-profile athletes like Williams experience on a daily basis. Whether you are a woman or a minority, in some situations other’s prejudices can impact one’s job and livelihood.

For both Williams sisters, having their appearance criticized and scrutinized over the years has not been easy. As teens, they were teased because of their African-American hairstyles, like having beaded braids, or for other racial characteristics. Also, one time a tennis official penalized Venus for causing a “disruption” after several of her beads slipped out during a competition. Moreover, in 2001 during the Indian Wells tournament, the sisters were booed by spectators, they were also subjected to n-word taunts, and one male spectator even mentioned, “I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.” Even outside of that tournament, over the years the Williams sisters have repeatedly been branded as “savage,” compared to animals, and as “pummeling,” “overwhelming,” or “overpowering” their white rivals. Despite all these horrible obstacles, both sisters have persevered, remain supported, and serve as examples for others to not back down.

Although the allegations are fresh, perhaps the world is seeing the first rays of hope that the world of tennis may soon become marginally less sexist because of such comradery. And it is a reminder that, although women or other’s being discriminated against commonly feel alone and not sure whether they should speak up, that the reality is that victims of bias are not alone and their voices have the power to spark change.