Serena Williams might be sidelined from the tennis courts due to her pregnancy, but that certainly hasn’t kept her from speaking out about matters of social justice.
On Monday, the 23-time Grand Slam champion penned a powerful essay for Fortune Magazine about how black women can close the pay gap. She wrote the piece to honor Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, the day that marks how much longer into the new year that black women have to work, on average, to earn the same amount that white men earned last year.
“Even black women who have earned graduate degrees get paid less at every level,” Williams says. “This is as true in inner cities as it is in Silicon Valley.”
In the piece, she talks candidly about the sexism and racism she has faced in her own life, and notes that while she has achieved remarkable financial success during her career, that if she hadn’t picked up a tennis racket, she would be just like the other 24 million black women in America.
“Growing up, I was told I couldn’t accomplish my dreams because I was a woman and, more so, because of the color of my skin. In every stage of my life, I’ve had to learn to stand up for myself and speak out,” Williams said. “I have been treated unfairly, I’ve been disrespected by my male colleagues and — in the most painful times — I’ve been the subject of racist remarks on and off the tennis court.”
Racism and sexism have followed Williams throughout her tennis career — in just the last few months, tennis legend Ilie Nastase made a racist remark about Williams’ baby, and tennis legend John McEnroe made a sexist remark about her talent on the court.
Williams recognizes in her piece that this is all part of the systematic oppression of black women, and that most black women don’t have the resources and support she has to fight back against it.
The cycles of poverty, discrimination, and sexism are much, much harder to break than the record for Grand Slam titles. For every black woman that rises through the ranks to a position of power, there are too many others who are still struggling. Most black women across our country do not have the same support that I did, and so they often don’t speak out about what is just, fair and appropriate in the workplace. When they do, they are often punished for it.
In her piece, Williams provides hard data about the wage gap, and a few suggestions for how to close it. Besides necessary legislation, Williams calls for increased recognition that the earning potential for black women lags well behind white men, arguing that awareness will help push the issue forward. To underscore the point, she partnered with SurveyMonkey to learn what Americans thought of the pay gap. She found that 69 percent of black women perceive a pay gap, compared to just 44 percent of white men.
“Black women: Be fearless. Speak out for equal pay. Every time you do, you’re making it a little easier for a woman behind you,” Williams says. “Most of all, know that you’re worth it. It can take a long time to realize that. It took me a long time to realize it. But we are all worth it.”
While Williams often shied away from tackling social justice issues earlier in her career, recently she has become much more vocal, particularly about racial injustices. Last year, her first tweet after reaching the Wimbledon final was about the murder of Philando Castile.