Here we are in 2017 discussing whether Serena Williams can beat the 700th-ranked male tennis player or a 58-year-old guy with a big mouth. Why is it that we’re still framing a battle of the sexes as the ultimate test, as if until a woman athlete proves she can beat a mediocre man, she won’t have wrested control of the clicker, the thermostat and the wheel? Like one stunt by Williams could make up for the whole imbalance, every crummy dollar and cent.
John McEnroe has been baiting Serena and Venus Williams into a match for years, to try to drum up business for himself. Remember, this is a guy who won the last of his major singles championships back in 1984 but has managed to stay on some sort of screen ever since with his glib jaw. So understand that when he rambled to NPR that Serena would rank no better than 700th on the men’s circuit, it was just part of a media tour to huckster his new autobiography. McEnroe is actually pro-feminist and an advocate for equal prize money, and he once admitted that Serena, the winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, could probably take him “in the ring,” and that his best chance is to “get her while she’s pregnant.”
All of which is pretty amusing, but not nearly as interesting as what Serena herself had to say over the weekend, at the same time McEnroe was running his outboard engine mouth. She was at a SheKnows media conference discussing her new role as board member at Survey Monkey, the tech data analysis company where she joins heavyweights such as Sheryl Sandberg and Intuit chief executive Brad Smith.
“Silicon Valley is really, really, really not open yet to having a lot of women or anyone of color, male or female,” Williams said. “Those two barriers alone are really things we have to break down. . . . It’s really important to me to not just be a seat warmer but to really be a voice.”
Williams is not interested in one woman’s physical superiority over a middle-aged man — a point proved by Billie Jean King back in 1973 when she whipped 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in straight sets. Williams is interested in the larger and more sweeping subject of female entrepreneurship because she understands that’s where the battle has shifted. McEnroe’s remarks, facetious as they may be, are an excuse to do a status check and ask the serious question of how much distance has been covered since King-Riggs 44 years ago when it comes to opportunity. The answer is, not nearly as much as you would like to think.
“We’re taking forever in this country, and I don’t know why,” King said recently.
Gender bias in the workplace is still so prevalent that it amounts to nothing less than a brand of segregation: Fewer than 6 percent of decision-makers at U.S. venture capital firms are women. Women hold only 4.4 percent of CEO titles at S&P 500 companies. As for women of color, only 8 percent make it to any managerial level at all.
When all of these things are so, why do we keep falling back into the irrelevant, trivial trap of direct physical comparisons? Equality does not mean perfect sameness.
Fact: Men generally tend to be larger — which means bigger hearts, lungs and muscles, and a higher oxygen intake capacity and more red blood cells. There are other differences, too. Men are more likely to suffer from cancer; women, from osteoarthritis. Men have better distance vision and depth perception; women are better at night vision and have better visual memories.
All of which begs a giant, “So?”
Yet the nagging mis-correlation between physical hardiness and competency lingers. King took on the “Battle of the Sexes” because disproving notions of female weakness was critical to social progress for women in the ’70s: Riggs brayed the chauvinist-majority view that women belonged in the “bedroom and kitchen” because they lacked both muscle and “emotional stability.” When it came to money, wives were treated like irresponsible children. King couldn’t even get her own credit card though she was the breadwinner in her family. She felt enormous responsibility to show that women weren’t “chokers and spastics” under pressure, she has said.
Is the challenge so much different now? There is the perception that somehow equality has been won, but in fact, there has been more noise than progress. “Equality — with what?” writer and intellectual Germaine Greer has asked, and it’s a damn good question.
If the benchmark is workplace equity, some comparable sameness in status and pay, the news is very bad: There are about as many women decision-makers in board rooms as there are in “Lord of the Flies,” and people still act like it’s because they haven’t crossed some physical Rubicon to fully prove their merit.
Serena Williams is the greatest athletes in history, and in the last year she earned about $10.5 million, which is great — except that Novak Djokovic earned more than twice that, at $21.6 million. Why? Because tournament directors and corporate sponsors cling to the idea that because men play longer matches they are superior and entitled to more. Which makes no sense at all in an entertainment business: As McEnroe has observed, you don’t pay more money for a movie ticket just because it lasts three hours.
It should no longer be incumbent on one or a few female athlete-activists to make these points by winning exhibition matches against inferior men. We don’t need more women-deciders and equal pay because it’s right or moral, but because it creates a broader talent pool, and better work. This is everyone’s problem, not just Serena Williams’s or Billie Jean King’s. “I get tired of everyone saying, ‘Thanks for what you did for women,’ ” King said. “Everybody can be an influence.”