Motherhood and Maternity Leave in Sports
The topic of maternity leave in sport has been in the spotlight in recent years, in large part thanks to the best tennis player in the world, Serena Williams, having a baby. After winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant (!!!), Williams took a break from the sport to have her baby. When she stopped playing, Serena was ranked No. 1 in the world. However, after having the adorably cute 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 at during the opening rounds of a tournament; the best players being somewhat protected for the first few rounds because they face the much lower ranked players. So 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 off the bat. Before her mat leave, she would have likely only encountered these players in finals or semifinals. 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 an entry level position. Feels… very unfair to say the least.
Female tennis players have taken mat leave before, but the level of Williams’ celebrity brought the conversation into the limelight. Many were surprised that there wasn’t a better ranking policy in place for women returning from mat leave, especially for a sport that prides itself on gender equity (in 2007, tennis finally started paying men and women the same prize money in tournaments).
What happened to Williams really frustrated us. It also prompted us to think about motherhood and maternity leave in sport in general. Unfortunately, many athletes have to choose between motherhood and being an athlete. If athletes choose to come back to sport after giving birth, it is not usually supported by fair maternity leave policies. So let’s dig a little deeper…
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. 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 to the fitness level of an elite athlete. 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 the 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. 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.
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 (remember, that’s the Women’s Tennis Association). In tennis, they have a “special ranking” rule that a player can use 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, are based off that player’s current WTA ranking. That’s why Williams and others can gain entry into tournaments, but still have to fight their way through the rounds as an unseeded player facing the toughest competition. 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 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 in 2018 and for the first time EVER in ladies golf, her main sponsor, KPMG, paid Lewis the FULL value of her contract. Snaps to KPMG. Without that endorsement 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.
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 while 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 have recently moved in the right direction — Jenny Boucek became the first ever assistant coach in the NBA to be hired while pregnant. YASSS Jenny, get it!
We simply believe that the amount of progress that’s been made in terms of maternity leave in sport is unacceptable. Having a superstar like Serena Williams bring the issue into the spotlight is really positive for women’s sports — because when people talk, it can spark change. That said, we need to ensure that the change enacted is not just for stars like Williams, but that it also means that those moms-to-be that are ranked below the top tier are treated the same way.
Gender equity in sports has a long way to go. Society normally thinks of gender equity in sport 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 also require the support of 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 the future will bring positive change.