Published: 26 March 2018
Area of Law: Employment
Serena serves up a maternity conundrum
Serena Williams recently returned to the women’s professional tennis tour having taken 13 months off to have her first child. We’re all delighted to see her back. However, her return from maternity leave has highlighted some very interesting issues.
Serena was unfortunately knocked out of the Miami Open in the first round last week. However, she was drawn as an unseeded player against Naomi Osaka, the recent winner of the Indian Wells tournament. This is despite the fact that Serena had topped the world rankings before her time off to have her child, and despite the fact that she is arguably the best female player to ever grace the sport.
Whilst Serena does have a “protected ranking” which allows her entry to eight tournaments in 12 months (including two Grand Slams), her time away from the game means that she currently has no official ranking. Therefore, as things stand, she cannot be seeded for Women’s Tennis Association Tour events and will have to face competitive early round draws with top seeded players until she rises back up the rankings. Without her seeding, Serena’s return to the professional game is going to be far more difficult.
The Miami Open tournament director, James Blake, was apparently quoted as saying that seeding rules in women’s tennis are a “kind of punishment” for those returning after a period maternity leave. He has apparently recommended that the seeding rules be changed to protect someone who goes on maternity leave.
On the face of things, it appears that Serena went on maternity, and when she returned to work, she was told that she could not return to the position she had been in before she left – she had to start from the bottom again and work her way back up.
Here in the UK, employees returning from maternity leave are protected in the workplace – so why should these same principles not apply to professional tennis players? Generally speaking, in the UK a female employee has the right to return to the same job in which she was employed before she went on maternity leave. Her terms of employment must be the same as, or not less favourable than, they would have been had she not taken time off. Employers who do not comply are at risk of claims for maternity discrimination.
Tennis is a sport that prides itself on gender equality, and with everything else going on in the public eye to promote equality at work, I wonder whether it is now time for a change to the rules. Shouldn’t female professional tennis players be afforded similar protection to that given to women in the UK who return to the workplace? Should they not be allowed to return to the tour in the position they were in before they went on maternity leave?
It will be very interesting to see how this issue develops, particularly in light of the media attention that it has drawn…