For anyone who watched The US Open Tennis women’s final last Saturday night (or Sunday morning), you couldn’t fail to feel uncomfortable at the champion Serena Williams going into a meltdown when she was deducted a point for receiving coaching during the match. Unfortunately, this escalated: she lost focus on the game; got more an more angry, resulting in her breaking her racquet and abusing the umpire. She had a game given to her opponent Naomi Osaka. She lost the match and championship, but not before officials came on to the court to try to placate her.
After the match, the crowd were booing. The new champion, Naomi Osaka was distraught. It was ugly and totally ruined her triumph. It wasn’t until Serena told the crowd to stop booing that some sort of order was restored. AND the umpire had to be escorted off court, missing out on receiving his medal for being in the championships.
I was utterly perplexed by this scene; Serena is a fantastic role model; she is a great athlete, champion and mother. I was so upset for Naomi Osaka, whose win was upstaged by this drama. And I was also puzzled (I am being diplomatic) that at the press interview, she then said she was doing this for all women and mothers. Yet didn’t acknowledge that she had broken the rules of tennis through her behaviour. She also stated that there is one rule for male tennis players and another for females. Since I haven’t seen all of the US Open matches, I am not in a position to comment on this.
However, I was concerned that she felt the pressure of being a role model. And the thing is: she is a role model for new mothers. In the last year she has become a new mother; gone through some major health issues following the birth of her daughter; got back into tennis AND been in the final of two grand slams. AND now she has the additional pressure of being a role model.
Being a role model troubles me. In my work I come across highly successful women who feel the additional pressure of being a role model in additional to actually doing their job. One client, who became the most senior female within her sector of a multi national company was surrounded by women as the announcement was made. They didn’t congratulate her but wanted something of her: for her to mentor them; for her to help them with their career; for her to give them a job. “It was bewildering. I hadn’t even started my new role!” she said.
Another client was the only female board member of a company within a male dominated industry. She received significant verbal abuse from other board members and decided to resign. She was already supporting a female support group within the industry, but was surprised at the backlash to her resignation from some members. There were those who vocally told her that she was letting women down (what???) and others who said how disappointing it was that she was no longer a role model. She was trying to do her job and hadn’t asked to be a role model for all women.
And so I come back to Serena. Of course she wanted to continue playing tennis. This has been her life for many years. And she is a hugely impressive individual. But was setting herself up as a role model one too many pressures to deal with, less than a year since she had a baby? Do we have a responsibility as humans NOT to set up others as role models, particularly when their lives are full of stress already?? What do you think.