The topic of maternity leave in sport has been in the spotlight this year, in large part thanks to the best tennis player in the world, Serena Williams, having a baby. After winning the 2017 Australian Open while preggers (LOL, LIKE HOW?!), Williams was forced to leave tennis because she was pregnant. When she stopped playing, Serena was ranked No. 1 in the world. However, after having the cutest baby girl in the world, Alexis Ohanian Jr., she returned to the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) in March 2018 with a ranking of No. 453.
Rankings are incredibly important in tennis, as it’s the best vs. the worst ranked players facing off at the start of the tournament. This results in the best players being somewhat protected for the first couple of rounds. Therefore, it was a BFD that Williams didn’t have a good ranking when she came back to the tennis world, as she had to face off against her fiercest opponents right at the get-go, as well as throughout the tournament. Before her mat leave, she would have only encountered these players in finals or semi finals. Simply put, this would be like Williams being the CEO of a company, taking mat leave, and then coming back to her job to find out that she’d been demoted to the bottom of the org chart. How TF is that fair?!
The situation of a tennis player going on mat leave has happened before, but because of Williams’ celebrity, the WTA not having a fair mat leave policy is in the limelight. For a sport that prides itself on gender equity (in 2007, tennis finally started paying men and women the same prize money in tournaments), it’s shocking that there isn’t a better ranking policy for women returning from mat leave.
What happened to Williams really frustrated us. It also prompted us to think about motherhood and maternity leave in sports in general. Unfortunately, many athletes have to choose between motherhood and being an athlete. If athletes choose to come back to the sport after giving birth, it is not usually supported by fair maternity leave policies. So, we decided to dive deeper into the conundrum of motherhood and mat leave in sports.
The Choice Between Motherhood and Sports…
1. Most sports don’t have paid mat leave
For Canadians in corporate settings, we’re fairly fortunate to have a paid mat leave and about 12 months off from work (depending on the employer). However, the same can’t be said for athletes. Unfortunately, for many sports, play = pay. If you’re not on the pitch, you’re sure as heck not making money. For example, Williams was the only woman listed on the Forbes Top 100 Highest Paid Athletes in 2017, but after giving birth and taking mat leave, she was no longer on the list in 2018. It’s also important to mention that no other women were listed in the top 100 either. Talk about #wagegap.
2. During pregnancy, mat leave and post pregnancy, there’s generally a decrease in endorsement money
Play = pay also goes for sponsorship money. When female athletes are unable to compete in leagues, competitions, tournaments, etc., many brands pull back their endorsements as their brand is no longer frequently in front of the consumer. Further, following pregnancy, it takes many women a long time to get back into the fitness level of an elite athlete (and TBH most of us have no clue what it means to be in that sort of shape). Consequently, when these women get back to competing, their results are (as to be expected!) not the same as they were before they had a baby. And, you guessed it, because their results aren’t as good as they used to be, they don’t get the same monetary support from sponsors.
3. Having a baby takes an emotional and physical toll on top of a demanding travel schedule athletes have
Moms are truly superheroes. The (literal) sh!t they have to put up with on a day-to-day basis is remarkable. For mom athletes, compound all the incredible hard work they already do and add that to the rigorous training they must undertake to get back to their sport ASAP (as mentioned, no luxury of having paid time off and they don’t want to fall behind the competition). On top of the training, once these mommas are back in action, they’re likely travelling all over the world to play their sport. Coming back from having a baby is not only physically demanding, as the body is generally not the same as it was pre-baby, but also emotionally demanding. Many mom athletes, including Williams, have said they feel incredibly guilty for spending time training over time with their baby. Seriously. Have a look at this tweet from Serena and tell us it doesn’t make you want to cry.
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) August 6, 2018
So, if we may be so bold, it’s almost as if female athletes are punished for having the biological ability to have children. The reality is that motherhood has a huge impact on an athlete’s career, and, if motherhood can even remotely be a career killer, it’s really no surprise that women remain incredibly under-represented in sports.
What are Organizations Doing Now?
Let’s look at the WTA first. In tennis, they have a “special ranking” rule where the player can use her special ranking to gain entry into tournaments for two years. However, this ranking only qualifies them for tournaments. The seeds within the tournament, which determine the top players for any given tournament, are based off that player’s current year WTA ranking. That’s why Williams and others can gain entry into tournaments, but why they’re not listed as top dogs at the tournament. Here’s a good Q&A with the WTA that explains special seeding and their *cough* bogus *cough* policy on maternity leaves. They are currently considering a rule change for the 2019 season.
We’ve kinda got a feel-good story for this one. Two-time major champion and 12-time winner on the LPGA Tour, Stacy Lewis, went on mat leave earlier in 2018, and for the first time EVER in ladies golf, her main sponsor, KPMG, is paying Lewis the FULL value of her contract. Snaps to KPMG (and no they didn’t pay us to say that)!!! Without KPMG endorsing her, though, Lewis said she would have had an entirely unpaid maternity leave. There have been a handful of professional golfers that have had babies over the years; however, the comeback to pro golf is difficult. Only one golfer has won a major tournament after becoming a mother over the last 15 years.
Don’t even get us started on organized professional team sports in Canada. In 2017, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) JUST started paying their players throughout the regular season (and we’re talking small bucks…only $2,000 to $10,000 per player, like SMDH). They’re just starting to PAY players let alone even THINK about mat leave.
The WNBA is really the only long-term solidified professional sports league for women out of the core four sports (baseball, basketball, hockey, football) in North America. In the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), players who get pregnant while under contract receive 50% of their salary and have their medical expenses covered by insurance. Not bad, but also not great considering the WNBA’s notoriously low wages. The current CBA runs through October 2021. For the upcoming new contract, it is expected that the WNBA players’ union will negotiate child care expense coverage as players cannot be expected to take care of their children when they’re flying around the country.
Let’s switch to the NBA, which is widely regarded as the most progressive men’s professional league in terms of hiring women in the office as well as on the court. Things are moving in the right direction this year—Jenny Boucek became the first ever assistant coach in the NBA to be hired while pregnant. YASSS Jenny, get it!
Tying it Back to the Workplace
Because the majority of us aren’t blessed with amazing athletic genes and superhuman coordination (we blame our parents), we’re gonna tie this topic back to something most of us are familiar with – the workplace. There’s a lot of evidence that shows working mothers are highly efficient and motivated employees, and that employees feel more loyal to organizations that support them throughout their pregnancy. Why can’t policies in the corporate world be replicated in sport? If sport could embrace similar policies to the corporate world, and not punish women for taking maternity leave (e.g. Williams’ ranking going from No. 1 to No. 453), maybe sport could reap the same rewards that the corporate world has. It’s at least worth exploring, no?
Here’s the thing: given that sports were created by men for men in the early 1900s, it’s no wonder that the initial rules didn’t take women’s maternity leave into consideration. But, it’s 2018 and the amount of progress that’s been made is simply unacceptable. Having a superstar like Serena Williams bring the issue of maternity leave in sport into the spotlight is really positive for women’s sports – because when people talk, it can generally spark change. That said, we need to ensure that the change enacted is not just for stars like Williams – it also means that those moms-to-be that are ranked at 150+ are treated the same way.
Gender equity in sports has a long way to go. Society normally thinks of gender equity in sports in terms of equal playing opportunities and pay equity. However, maternity leave and motherhood also need to be factored into this equation. Players should not feel like they’re being punished for becoming a mother … nor should they feel like they have to choose between motherhood and being an elite athlete because of financial reasons. Enacting change will take the support from athletes’ sponsors and the leagues. If the WTA considering a rule change and KPMG honouring its full sponsorship contract throughout a maternity leave is a sign of anything, we’re crossing our fingers that 2018 and 2019 will bring more positive change.
Small signals, like the WTA considering a rule change and KPMG honouring its full sponsorship contract throughout a maternity leave, show that positive change is on the horizon. We’ve got our fingers crossed that 2018 and 2019 will bring more attention and consequently rules changes that will better support to mom athletes.
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