Bringing it home: how tennis has sparked a maternity leave debate

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By saying to women, you can make it to the most senior positions in our workplaces...if you really want to, and requiring them to prove themselves over and over again, we put the burden back on women to fit into a system designed by men, for men.

It’s time to address the systemic issues that punish women who don’t make it because of an assumption that they’ve lost their ambition and are no longer committed enough to their workplaces.
— Prue Gilbert

Just over a year ago, world champion athlete Serena Williams, walked off the court at the Australian Open, having earned her place as the world’s number one tennis player, despite playing the tournament whilst in her first trimester. This week, she stepped out onto the court at the French Open ranked 451st globally.

The reason for Williams’ dramatic descent in the rankings? Her decision to take a year of maternity leave to have her first child.

In many ways, Williams’ experience is specific to the world of tennis, with much of the debate this week centering around a practice known as ‘seeding’ which protects top players - although, seemingly, not those returning from maternity leave.

But away from the court, Williams’ experience reflects a daily reality for working mothers around the world.

While starting a family is often one of the happiest times in a person’s life, the society we live in continues to see pregnancy as coming with an inevitable cost, with the burden being borne primarily by mothers.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a baby is born every two minutes in Australia, the ‘lucky country’. Yet half of their mums will experience discrimination when they return to the workplace after maternity leave.

Taking time away from the workplace for maternity leave can lead women to lose their clients, their career opportunities and their reputations, not to mention the long-term financial implications which last well into retirement.

Williams’ experience is testament to the fact that, when the system is broken, no amount of power or money can shield you from the inherent societal biases that deliver discriminatory blows.

And while we would have liked to see her challenge the WTA for discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy (maybe she still will!), we also understand her desire to prove herself on the court. Because again, that’s what women often feel they need to do...prove their value, their worth all over again. But this time, with a whole lot more pressure.

So where to from here?

It’s time for us as a society to make a decision to value women. And that means protecting them collectively, not requiring them to challenge the system and put themselves up for assessment one by one.

Because while there are many steps that working mothers can take to mitigate their experiences of bias and discrimination - and we see many success stories through the work we do - debating how women should be ranked and rated following maternity leave is not constructive.

So let’s instead work to create systems that value the contributions women make to our society; systems that celebrate equality by providing blanket protections for women through pregnancy, in a meaningful and practical way, with zero tolerance for not doing so. And by encouraging men to take parental leave & work flexibly too.

Prue Gilbert is the founder and CEO of Grace Papers, an award-winning digital platform designed to equip women with tools and advice to manage their careers into parenthood and return to work with confidence.