It has taken me a while to get my thoughts on the debate down on paper, it is a such a complex issue that is important to dissect with careful consideration. I have done a fair few interviews in the aftermath which have been incredibly challenging. The time you are given is just not long enough to try and have this discussion, it is such a delicate issue and it takes someone really wanting to understand it for anything anyone says to make a difference. The debate has polarising opinions, but there is no clear answer or side to any of this, I will attempt to offer some clarity and unpick at least some of it!
Serena’s behaviour after receiving her first code violation was out of order. Carlos Ramos followed the rules and did his job. Case closed? Yep pretty much… as far as this isolated incident is concerned, but it is important to look at why Serena called out sexism in the heat of the moment as well as after a cooling off period in her press conference.
In general I see umpires treating women differently to men and this is something that really needs to be discussed in a calm and considered way. I am in no way calling any umpire on tour sexist as I have never seen that, but I am talking about unconscious bias that we all have and goes on in every walk of life on a daily basis. Someone in a position of authority, male or female, has a different attitude when dealing with a man versus a woman. On the flip side, someone who reports to a male authority versus a female one treats them very differently as well, and we see that on court particularly with male players towards female umpires.
Tennis is a rare situation where this psychology gets played out regularly on TV, mainly because we are doing such incredible things for women. Of all the US Open final umpires, there were 4 females and 1 male – I am so proud of this! On top of that, Tennis is the leading sport in the world for women and must be one of the leading organisations too. Over 150 jobs for women earning over £150k a year with top earnings of £20m… and that is just the players. So many still don’t agree with equal prize money, but if women can not get equal pay working in the very top organisation for female employees we won’t get it anywhere. Anyway… I’ll leave that for another time.
When I see umpires and players interact I do notice a difference. Unconscious bias is a very tricky thing to unpick and without a scientific experiment impossible to prove, so I will share my thoughts and ask you some questions.
In general male umpires tend to be more authoritative with the women than with the men. They seem less open to communication, explanation and leniency which comes across as slightly colder.
When Cornet broke an obscure rule unintentionally by changing her top at the back of the court she was given a code violation . It was cold and strict just like Serena’s initial code violation that was out of her control. I am not saying that men would not receive the code violation for changing their top (it is the same rule for men and women) I just see umpires being more prepared to help them understand the situation. This makes them feel respected and can go a long way to diffuse any tension.
Mohamed Lahyani got down out of his chair, gave Nick Kyrgios a pep talk in the middle of a match telling him he was “good for the game” before Kyrgios came back from a set and a break down to win. Kyrgios was ultimately showing disrespect for the crowd, the umpire, his opponent and the game by blatantly not trying. It was such an extraordinary incident to try and get your head around but most accept, myself included, that Lahyani crossed a line and a slap on the wrist was reasonable punishment.
The question is would an umpire ever cross that line with a female player? Would they even get close to it? When Muguruza isn’t putting in her best efforts would they tell her that she is great for the game as the Spanish speaking market is so huge? Would they get down on the same level and talk to her like an equal without authority? I feel the need to reiterate the for me NONE of this is deliberate in any way.
Ok, it is pretty impossible to get equivalent situations as examples for this but it is just that I cannot see what happened with Kyrgios ever happening with a male umpire and a WTA player, and I think that most of the time the men get more engagement from the umpires to explain situations and they actively try to help them calm down.
I don’t agree with the WTA that the rules are enforced differently, I just believe that the attitude and delivery in general is different but this contributes to female players feeling hard done by.
Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment and throughout this whole messy incident Serena seemed to forget that Carlos Ramos is one of the coldest and strictest Umpires around, he wasn’t cold and strict with her because she is a woman, he is like that consistently with everyone and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. Actually because he is such a stickler for the rules, Carlos has less variation in his application and delivery, therefore his unconscious bias will show far less than most. But because Serena has felt this bias consistently at slams and at other joint events she jumped right in to her default mode of defending her rights. I found myself with very mixed emotions when she said to the WTA supervisor Donna Kelso “it wouldn’t happen to a man” because in so many incidences she would have been right but this just wasn’t one of them. Regardless her behaviour was unacceptable.
Do you react differently when faced with an emotional man versus an emotional woman? It seems to me that most do. People write off an emotional woman as hysterical, wait for her to finish her crazy senseless rant before either ignoring her or reprimanding her… my personal favourite is the utterly patronising “have you finished?” often accompanied with one hell of a disapproving look. In general, people seem much more willing to engage with a man in this situation by trying to reason with him, calm him down or simply trying to understand why he is so emotional.
Unconscious bias is everywhere, we can’t ever get rid of it as we are all a product of what we know and we aren’t at fault for it either. If you were reading this hoping for an answer, I don’t have one. Maybe we should treat men and women differently because we are different, but we need to move away from the stereotype that an emotional woman is out of control, and an emotional man has more authority.
To hear more discussion on this listen to the latest episode of Tennish which is our brand new podcast hosted by myself and Gigi Salmon. Also listen to the latest episode of No Challenges Remaining as Courtney and Ben discuss similar issues but in an American accent.