Throughout my childhood, playing tennis with my sister Serena in our hometown of Compton, California I always dreamed of winning tournaments like Wimbledon. Then, when I finally got there, I was struck by the inequality. When I won Wimbledon for the first time in 2000, the men’s singles champion received £477,500 while the women’s singles champion earned £430,000. From then on, I felt compelled to campaign for equality for women.
The battle for equal pay in tennis started from the outset in 1968, when the sport was made ‘open’ or fully professional. It’s the reason why, five years later, Billie Jean King established the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to unite and strengthen the voices of women tennis players around the world.
I firmly believe that sport mirrors life and life mirrors sport. The lack of equality and equal opportunities in tennis is a symptom of the obstacles women face around the world. While Nordic countries such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland demonstrate some of the lowest disparities in pay between men and women, Turkey, Bahrain and Nigeria are some of the highest. In the US, women made 82.3 cents for every dollar men made in 2019.
This shocking statistic inspired me to initiate the inaugural #PrivilegeTax campaign to fill the gap via my own lifestyle and activewear company Eleven by Venus Williams. Throughout this month, ahead of Equal Pay Day on 24 March, customers can opt to donate 19 cents at the checkout when they shop with participating brands — Nordstrom, Tracy Anderson, Tom Brady’s TB12, Carbon38, Credo Beauty and my plant-based protein company Happy Viking among them. One hundred per cent of customer donations will go to the charity Girls Inc of Greater Los Angeles, which provides hundreds of girls with life-changing support through its education enrichment programme that focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
Closing the economic gender gap requires action at a national and international level as well as corporate. A 2019 World Economic Forum study found that it would take approximately 257 years to close and the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected women, is at risk of impeding our progress further. We owe it to our daughters and granddaughters to ensure closing the gap doesn’t take that long.
Some fixes can be implemented more quickly than others. For a start, while women are often underrepresented in senior positions in firms, they are overrepresented in low-paying jobs so increasing the minimum wage is a priority. Then there’s the urgent need for transparency; if women don’t know they aren’t being paid fairly, how can they do anything about it? Childcare and medical leave also need to be expanded to create equal opportunities for women as they are more likely to take time off work to look after their family.
None of these things are possible without men being part of the solution. Sexism isn’t a women’s issue any more than racism is a Black issue. Men need to understand gender equality is about equal opportunities for women rather than men relinquishing power. That’s why I invited my brother-in-law Alexis Ohanian to join a roundtable discussion I co-hosted with Sunny Hostin and other female entrepreneurs about the wage gap—it can’t just be women in a room talking.
When women are doing well, the family does well and so does the economy—we all win. Studies prove that the gender pay gap hits women of colour hardest. As an African-American woman, to know how hard we have to fight to show we’re human beings with a heart that beats just like everybody else; to know what it’s like to face biases based on gender and race is why I’m so passionate about campaigning for equality across the board.
Do I think we can achieve equality? It wasn’t until 2007 when I became a four-time Wimbledon champion that I received equal prize money to my male counterparts—the first woman to do so. The road was long and meandering, and it took 39 years of women fighting for equal prize money; more than two years campaigning with the WTA and an opinion piece in The Times to get there. But now we have equal pay in tennis at the majors and combined events—true equality.
There is still a mindset that women’s tennis isn’t as valuable as men’s. I went on to win another Wimbledon championship in 2008 and I’ve won four Olympic gold medals over the course of my career—I refuse to let that mindset dictate my success. And we must not allow it to dictate society’s progress.