This week at the US Open Serena Williams drew attention to sexist rules governing women’s attire by wearing a tutu on the court. It turned out this was the perfect outfit for her final match. 

The referee penalized Serena for looking to her coach in the stands. Serena was outraged that he’d accuse her of cheating. He penalized her again. She protested that he penalized her for being as angry on court as men are. Fans agreed, and protested loudly. Men rarely get penalized for what Serena did. She told the ref he was sexist. She called him a liar and a thief. At one point she was so frustrated that she smashed her racquet to pieces. Even with vocal support of the crowd, she lost the match.

Serena has been heartbreakingly transparent about the difficulties of her post-baby return. Unfortunately we rarely see that from women. Mostly we see BS like Sheryl Sandberg’s arrogant, misguided battle-cry for new moms to lean in. Serena is a perfect example of what it’s like to lean in. She is both a fortune-teller to women who are about to go through this phase of life, and she’s a mirror for the rest of society to see what’s really going on.

The precondition for going back to work is money and expertise. Because even though you have a new baby, the family will revolve around you. You need to have married a spouse who has already proven himself so he’s on-board to support your career. And you need a career that is special enough to warrant the whole family operating around it. And you need a lot of money to hire a nanny.

If your spouse is still trying to prove himself, you’ll divorce. If your spouse won’t be the primary caregiver, you will think your child deserves a parent as the primary caregiver and you’ll opt out, which is what nearly all high-performing women do.

All women can re-enter the workforce where they left. There is an enormous shortage of women over 35 in professional positions. Because professional women leave the workforce after having a baby. If you want to be full-time after you have a child, you will have no problem getting your job back. The real question is: do you like your job enough to give up your time with your baby in order to do the job?

Serena has been candid about how going back to a pre-baby job after becoming a mother is exhausting and forces difficult compromises. And remember this is not what it takes to build a career, it’s what is required to just hold on to the place you’ve already earned.

Patience for workplace BS disappears. Serena has faced gender discrimination over and over for decades, and she’s handled it with incredible grace.  But things change when you have a baby. Every second you devote to your work is time away from your baby, so you want your time at work to matter. You become acutely aware of the moments when people at work undermine your efforts.

Serena lost her shit on the court yesterday because her time feels more precious now; she could brush off anything before she had a baby. And thanks to how transparent she’s been about the difficulty of coming back to work, we are not surprised she can’t brush it off anymore.

Work doesn’t make people happy. Jennifer Senior’s research-laden book explains why having children does not make people happy, but children do create the most rapturous experience available to adults. Women feel this acutely, which is why women leave the workforce for kids and men don’t.

You will not climb up a ladder when you have young children, you will work twice as hard just to stay where you are. If you don’t like where you were when you had the baby, it’s not worth going back.

If you do want to go back, you will be shocked by how much harder you have to work than all the men at your level who have stay-at-home wives. You can do it, but it will be lonely. This is why very few professional women continue their career after a baby, and the idea of leaning in has been met with ridicule.

Sonja Lyubomirsky published a paper showing that happiness is a cause of career success rather than a result. Take heed. Be very clear on what you gain by returning to work. And for some time I have wondered, what are Serena’s career goals now?

At the awards ceremony the crowd continued its boisterous protest. Naomi, the first-place winner, pulled down her visor to cover her tears. Serena turned to check on her, and she noticed the tears, so she put her arm around Naomi’s shoulders. That’s when I realized Serena has come back because she’s not done clearing the path for the women who come after her.

Which is why Serena’s a winner today. That picture of Serena and Naomi is the picture of Serena’s hard-won return to tennis so she can force more change. And I hope someone saved her smashed racquet, because that one belongs in a trophy case.


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42 replies
  1. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    This is one of your best yet. Completely agree. Well done. Serena is a feminist icon. So grateful that she has the platform that she does.

  2. Rob H
    Rob H says:

    People who stress about the ‘Gender Pay Gap’ should read this. Great article.

    In the past I have had two very bright female bosses who turned down offers of promotion because they wanted more time with their young children.

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    This is why having a supportive stay-at-home dad is a competitive advantage for a female executive with children.

  4. Lisa Earle McLeod
    Lisa Earle McLeod says:

    Hell yes. Your patience for unproductive behavior goes out the window. This is spot on!
    It’s why I left my firm to start my own business 25 years ago. The “baby” who caused me to leave is now my busIness partner.

  5. harris497
    harris497 says:

    This was absolutely splendid. Add to all you said, the fact that Serena is an African-American woman who has been ridiculed in the past for how she looked. Breaking stereotypes, and supporting one another are needed if women are to continue making, and to hold on to the gains that they are making!

  6. Ali
    Ali says:

    I see it very differently.

    1) Fact. Serena was getting coaching. Her coach admitted that he does this all the time. He justified it by saying all coaches do this. So, Serena lied that she never gets coaching. Direct contradiction with her coaches words. She is a cheater. And she is a liar. Warning #1

    2) Serena smashes her racket. This should be allowed and is a silly rule. But it is a rule. Warning #2. Point penalty.

    3) Serena then goes bezerk and acts like a child. She yells and screams and demands he apologize to her. (He has levelled the same penalties to men, and is a consistent umpire) Serena is wrong. This is the “Yes Men” syndrome, where no one in her life has disagreed with her in ages. It has all gone to her head. She demands he not look at her. She is throwing her power around like a spoiled 6 year old throwing a tantrum. I’ve seen more mature behavior from a 13 year old. Calls the umpire a thief. Verbal abuse. Warning #3. Game penalty.

    It was disgraceful that Serena totally ruined Osaka’s first Grand Slam win. Osaka worked her whole life for this, and actually had to apologize for Serena’s behavior. Her moment was totally crapped on by a spoiled, entitled, victim complex narcissist.

    One player was pure class. The other threw a tantrum and is a sore loser. She should be ashamed of herself.

    For Serena to play the gender card when her behavior has nothing to do with gender is destructive to all women. This victim complex mindset has gotten to her head. Serena owes the umpire, Osaka, and tennis world an apology.

      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        Serena was playing a game against an “entity”, not a person. Naomi didn’t exist. She was just like a wall, returning the ball. Naomi had humility. Humility not to grandstand while playing, to apologize in front of the world for the outcome of the game (which, of course, she didn’t need to do). Humility to make the game about her talent and hard work, not her persona.

        Serena will learn that motherhood requires an enormous amount of humility. Humility is a virtue, a difficult one, worth striving for. Naomi said nothing, did nothing, and was left to herself to figure out what to do as she held the trophy. She had to hold up a trophy when the woman who gave it to her just finished telling her losing opponent that the game didn’t turn out the way they hoped. If that isn’t a kick in the gut, I don’t know what else is. Here you go, kid, but we wanted your opponent to win.

        The role model out there wasn’t the tennis legend who just had a baby. It was a young girl, from a country that has never won a grand slam, who achieved her life’s goal. And she was handed the trophy with regret. By the way, they are both women. And the cruel person who reluctantly gave the trophy to the champion was also a woman.

    • mh
      mh says:

      I agree with everything you posted here Ali. She received coaching during the tournament and got caught,threw a fit,tried to distract to upset the other player. Disrespectful court behavior. Nothing to do with gender.

      • Kyra
        Kyra says:

        I reluctantly agree with you Ali… with a MAJOR exception.

        Losing her sh** was bound to happen, she has dealt with racism, sexism, rude comments, and has been critiqued for every inch of her body and every aspect of her life, just to be a tennis player. This is completely unusual. She isn’t a model or a TV host. Eventually it all caught up with her, and the stress/perspective of having a child was the final straw. I agree she was bratty and dealt with it poorly but I have been there and have done the same… I would bet many of us have at some point. This is what happens when you spend years with a controlling spouse, or a narcissistic boss, school bullies or a**hole coworkers and finally one day explode on them. They deserved it, but probably 10 years ago.

        It’s never the right way to handle a problem, but it is a very human reaction.

        The book “Too Fat, Too Loud, Too Slutty,” covers Serena’s struggles really well.

  7. christy
    christy says:

    Penelope, I have a wondering. Have you ever uncovered any research on this same situation with non-straight couples? Same-sex female couples specifically.

    My partner stays home with our daughter and I work. But I’d rather be home with my daughter. Since we did are not no-need-for-a-real-job wealthy, one of us needs to earn enough for the whole family.

    But it still sucks. Then again, maybe it’s just me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I don’t think things are any different with same-sex or different-sex couples. What works best is one parent wants to go to work and one parent wants to stay home. Clear division of labor is best, and choosing someone who does not want to do the job you want to do is best.

      I notice that a lot of same-sex couples who I coach assumed it would be different for them. But it’s not. Part of winning equality for same-sex couples is that life in the married-with-kids world is boring and predictable and pretty darn conformist.


  8. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Serena’s behavior was a disgusting display of sore losership. It was truly a new low for the sport of tennis. As a long time player and viewer, I have never seen anything even remotely like it. The biggest tragedy is that Naomi Osaka was robbed of the opportunity to win each and every point in the second set on her own merit, which she was clearly on track to do. Make no mistake about it, that match wasn’t going to a third set. Osaka was simply en fuego.

    Serena is right that men get away with wilder behavior in general, but in this point the umpire wasn’t being sexist, he was simply sick of taking her abuse. Patrick Mouratoglou coached, she abused her racquet, and then she nastily called the umpire a thief simply for doing his job.

    She was disingenuous in invoking the sexism card. She didn’t invoke said card because she is truly concerned about that. She invoked it because an on-fire challenger 16 years her junior was and she didn’t like it.

    She new her stock was tanking so she invoked social issues, even though that isn’t what the umpire had in mind.

    Naomi Osaka’s star shone so bright, and Serena STILL managed to make the event all about her. Even though there is truth in what she said on that one point and that one point alone, the rest of the display was uncalled for, the umpires calls were totally warranted on all counts, and the whole thing was truly disgusting!

  9. Kathy Shaidle
    Kathy Shaidle says:

    Wow, disappointing. Serena is a sore loser. Her time is up and instead of being sportsmanlike and gracious, she threw a tantrum and cried “racism” and “sexism.”

    (African-American blah blah: Speaking as a Canadian (i.e. the last stop on the Underground Railroad) can you Americans PLEASE stop obsessing over slavery and Jim Crow, especially when it is white liberals doing it merely to virtue-signal? It’s like listening to a friend who still gets drunk and talks about the bad breakup 4 boyfriends ago.)

    “They weren’t there to watch a sporting contest; they were celeb groupies in love with the swagger and attitude of Miss Williams’ branding. The actual match mattered less to them than the Chase Bank ad endlessly played throughout, in which Serena kisses her baby daughter and struts cocksure onto court to taunt an unseen opponent: “I’m gonna knock you out. Mama said knock you out.”

    “Don’t you find this sort of posturing tinny, hollow, faintly repulsive and butt-numbingly clichéd? Even before the no-name opponent knocks YOU out…

    “Afterwards, denied the honor and glory of her victory by Katrina Adams, USTA and the jeering mob, Naomi Osaka pulled her visor down over her face and sobbed. She had withstood Serena and the crowd point by point through the match, but the post-match contempt knocked the stuffing out. (…)

    “One hardly needs to note the aptness of Chelsea Clinton coming to the defense of a wretchedly bad loser…”

    • Redhens
      Redhens says:

      That’s a terrible analogy. Unless the old boyfriend beat the shit out of her and left her permanently (physically and emotionally) damaged. And even then …

    • Kyra
      Kyra says:

      Racism is a different issue than complaining about slavery. I agree, slavery was a long time ago and no one is debating how bad that was. Racism and sexism are real issues. They are frustrating beams that people bump their heads on every day just going about normal life. There are some interesting accounts of people who have spent time as both genders (a transgender man to woman on YouTube) and videos of people who have spent time as a white and black person using make-up and they will tell you there ARE still issues.

  10. Claudine Wolk
    Claudine Wolk says:

    I love your blog. I love tennis and have followed it for many years. Did you know that Serena was called for a foot fault in the 2009 US Open against Kim Clijsters and yelled at the (female) line judge saying “I will shove this f’jng ball down your f’ing throat?” She didn’t say f’ing, she said the actual word. Serena has shown this temper before she became a Mom. I was at this years semi-finals when a crowd full of people cheered Serena to victory, myself included. Serena was cool as a cucumber. Her performance on Saturday was the exact opposite. She was losing and she lost her cool. It’s understandable to be frustrated when you are losing but when you lose your cool, you pay the price. Osaka should NOT have had suffer because of it.

  11. Trout Lily
    Trout Lily says:

    Bravo!! I agree that this is one of your all time best posts. And that BS crap about “leaning in” deserves all the ridicule it gets, and more.

  12. celestial
    celestial says:

    I don’t follow any sports, but I solidly support Ms. Michelle Obama’s advice of “Go high when they go low.” Ms. Obama is the epitome of a class act 100% of the time. Other would do well to follow her lead.

  13. Natasha
    Natasha says:

    I’ve been reading you for years and this is the best I’ve read. Might also be because it speaks right to me as the mother of a one year old trying to decide what to do with child care vs return to work (I’m in Canada where we get a decent parental leave). I’m torn and wish I was not the primary earner in my family. This post is prompting me to have a very frank conversation with my husband – I’ve been hinting, but it’s time for direct communication. Thank you.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That makes me so happy to hear.

      I want this blog to be a place where we can cut through all the BS of the glory of going back to work. It is so so so hard and you miss so much. No one told me any of that when I was trying to decide. Your comment makes me happy that you have better information to decide. Good luck.


  14. sevanetta
    sevanetta says:

    Applause from me for this fucking amazingly clear-eyed takedown of the whole situation. Thank you, Penelope. 100% agreed. Useful thinking for me as I try to fall pregnant and contemplate how it’s all going to work with the spouse who’s keen to stay at home part time while I go back full time when we eventually have a baby.

  15. Lea
    Lea says:

    Serena is the female GOAT but celeb worship and virtue signaling are making people act bonkers. I recall the match where she THREATENED A REF. always when she’s losing!!!!
    Penelope is obsessed with virtue signaling because she’s so insecure. Why in the world would you poison your kids heads with a rape case when neither is even sexually active or close to it? You can admire Serena’s gameplay without acting like a sycophantic fool.

  16. Lea
    Lea says:

    Serena is the female GOAT but celeb worship and virtue signaling are making people act bonkers. I recall the match where she THREATENED A REF. always when she’s losing!!!!
    Penelope is obsessed with virtue signaling because she’s so insecure. Why in the world would you poison your kids heads with a rape case when neither is even sexually active or close to it? You can admire Serena’s gameplay without acting like a sycophantic fool.
    Also I could care less what she wears so feminist paying attention to her clothes! But not allowing employers to set a dress code is bizarre. I like the low class histrionics of all the tantrumming players in tennis history but damned if I’m gonna defend it and whine sexism racism ism ism

    Since you like studies studies have shown women tend not to like stay at home dads. My husband was a great Sahd but we both knew it’d be temporary. Women can’t have it all. You can’t be a corporate shark or rise high in your career AND be there for your kids. Penelope’s error is she thinks she’s Sheryl Sandberg lite and touts her Briggs Meyer stuff as proof but in reality she’s a very committed mom over her career first. There will always be mommy wars because we can’t make choices and NOT FEEL GUILTY. I’ve met mom’s I thought were ugly because they said never being there made their kids independent. Maybe it did. I just found it ugly. Then I met mom’s who shadow their kids every move. I thought that was nauseating and creepy. Many of those kids will be high achieving. Who’s right? No one. Let your kids decide if they grew up happy. I lean towards the more time the better that’s why I Homeschool because they will grow up so fast anyway and I’ve no intention of housing a 25 year old as is today’s norm. I couldn’t wait to move out and I was so close to my family. It’s a big cultural shift I guess. I admire your self sufficiency as a single mom seemingly without alimony but the number one cause of poverty and emotional hardship among kids is single parenthood. And no one is responsible. You can’t pretend you don’t want divorce then do it twice. I don’t know what happened in marriage one but in marriage two you chose your kids achieving over your actual marriage and it strained credulity that you had to move to achieve. Can’t ask someone to uproot their life. I think you succeeded in reaching both boys that you can walk over people to achieve. I believe you wanted to teach that.

  17. Christine
    Christine says:

    Well said.

    Naomi has beaten Serena before, and she will beat her again, when it counts. This incident, in my mind, does cost Naomi and her coaches some extra energy in terms of working past this event and mentally setting her up for her next major victory. That is unfortunate. However, she has proven mentally tough and will get through this. Plus, having lived in Japan, I think she is all set from an endorsement standpoint but will have enormous pressures there too.

    As for Serena, I admired her behavior on the court and at the ceremony. She is dealing with tremendous complexities

  18. Amy D. Kovach
    Amy D. Kovach says:

    I don’t follow tennis and didn’t watch the video. But I appreciate both Penelope’s take on it and the civil dialogue among the commenters here.

  19. Monica
    Monica says:

    She’s not just a woman, she’s a woman of color. A Black Woman. Her race has played a significant role in her career as much as her gender. You never mention it here, but it’s important. She’s both a woman and black and you can’t ignore her race because she is always both at once.

  20. Ruo
    Ruo says:

    initially I reacted the way thinking she stole this glorious moment from Naomi Osaka. She’s a sore loser.

    Then two days later I’m thinking about it why it’s still making headlines on reddit tennis and they got a new mod in to manage the thread explosion negativity.

    Now I see: Serena has to manage the jeers of 20000 people in that audience who booed. She didn’t boo at Naomi, the crowd booed. Why is she handling all the media blame. Her coach admitted to coaching but it is she getting penalized, I don’t understand what he gains by adding this comment? It sounds almost humiliating that he confirmed she cheats no matter her protests. Martina Navratilova wrote out against her but BJK supports her. Someone said that it was a shame this incident is highlighted to bring attention to sexism/gender discrimination… because it’s so nuanced. There’s better case out there to highlight that are more black and white. Well, nuance is what leads to discussion and changes. I’m so glad the nuances are being fleshed out that the corner cases don’t!

    And today I woke up imagining all that weight on my shoulder, props to her for taking this on.

    There is a piece on this from the British newspaper Indepent that gave an insight from her perspective, to understand someone you have to walk their shoes:

  21. MJ
    MJ says:

    Interesting to see how much flack Serena is getting at the moment. People really seem to enjoy calling her a sore loser and tantrum thrower etc. I don’t particulalry care if it was bad behaviour she displayed and if it warrented the warnings and penalty. Those things happen with athletes sometimes (they are not saints and don;t owe us that either). But the way people seem to be feasting on calling her names for this…I only ever see that in male athletes if they are particulalry disliked (liek some European footbal (sorry soccer!) players). It was similar when Serena was not alowed to wear her catsuit. Never have I seen so many people say: “The rules of the court and game have to be respected!!!!” as when a black woman dared wearing an outfit that ould help her with her tromboses.

  22. Carol
    Carol says:

    I actually thought Serena was first on edge partly because she knew she might lose. Naomi was playing well. And her coach was coaching her, but she might not have been looking at him. So she felt the ruling was unfair–because she wasn’t looking at her coach. Bad coach. And Serena needed to keep cool. Then he piled on the fines. Docking a game is pretty extreme. Tantrums slow down games. At the same time, I’ve read that he indeed was going by the book, but that these rules are not consistently enforced. Serena’s time was going to come. Should it have been this game? I don’t know. But she should be ready for the day when the next Serena Williams beats her. And she shouldn’t be tempted to launch a distraction so the win looks unfair. I think this story has more than one thread and more than one layer, and no one came out looking the victor, including the victor. The back-to-work mother angle: She and her husband have money for nannies that can travel with her. Post-natal hormones and energy levels are another matter.

  23. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    “Men rarely get penalized for what Serena did” does not matter because her opponent is a woman not a man. The same rules apply to both. Namoi beat her fairly and she threw a fit. Serena’s career has been amazing, some of her outbursts amusing, but this one was uncalled for but no one will call her on it.

    When Serena did play a man he beat her 5-0, the man was ranked 203rd in the world.

    • harris497
      harris497 says:

      You miss the point completely. Women get treated differently, PERIOD. She was treated differently! It does not matter who she was playing. Also, so what if she was beaten by a man. What is the consequence of that to this discussion?


      • Stephen
        Stephen says:

        They get treated different because they are different. If we complain about Serena being treated differently than men, then let her play a man, well she did and got her ass handed to her.

        • harris497
          harris497 says:

          Really Stephen? The law should be applied differently depending on who you are, what you look like, your gender, your race, your eye color, etc.?
          Your biases are showing Stephen, slow down, breathe, and count to 10 before you respond. Sounds like you have a problem with women…

  24. Kelsey
    Kelsey says:

    I loved this post! I am recently back to work after a year off with my baby (I live in Canada), and all of the unprofessionalism at the small nonprofit where I work is driving me crazy. I used to laugh and tell my sisters about the weirdness, but now I am looking for another job. What you wrote about patience for workplace BS disappearing resonated with me. Thank you.

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