Venus doesn’t give up much game here. She’s made this clear for years: If you want to stop a conversation with her in its tracks, ask her about her longevity.
If, though, you’re willing to forego that topic and talk about matters weightier than hitting a yellow ball over a net, you get the Full Venus. All perspective and accumulated wisdom. Today’s topic, in coordination with Equal Pay Day, is the gender pay gap.
When Venus won her first major singles title, Wimbledon 2000, she was presented with a check for $696,858. A day later, Pete Sampras won the men’s title at the All-England Club. His bounty: $717,721. That the difference was puny—paying the women 97% of the men’s wages—did not reduce the sting, especially since the decision-makers relied on no actual data to suggest women players were any less valuable.
“In the middle of the [tournament], you’re focused on that match, on that moment,” she says. “But, yeah, [tennis] has ups and downs. Equity should never have ups and downs.”
Year after year, Venus recalls, the WTA would petition tennis’s four majors for equal wages. “The women would go into those Grand Slam meetings and get denied every time. There was no consideration.”
Until there was. With Venus on the front lines—attending meeting after stultifying meeting,
even writing op-eds—the majors reversed course and, by 2007, each of the four paid equal purses. Ever since, equal wages at the biggest events have become an article of faith.
One lesson she learned: Formalizing pay equity as a core company value and goal made a difference. “It was literally in our WTA roadmap that we want to achieve equal prize money,” says Venus Williams. “Before that it had never existed on paper. There were ideas floating around and we talked about it, sure. But once we put it on paper, it became something real.”
Now, she’s partnered with Credit Karma to take the fight to more conventional workplaces. “Money is a thing. Money is a real thing. But the topic is about equality and opportunity, and with money comes opportunity and empowerment. And historically women have not had those opportunities. When we talk about minorities, the gaps go wider. Outside the United States, the gap goes wide open. So this is an issue facing women all over the world.”
She comes with solutions. Workers need to talk more about the wage gap and familiarize themselves with data, including the stat that one-third of American women believe they are not compensated fairly compared to male counterparts.
What about employers? Says Venus: “The pay gap stems from systematic inequalities, whether that’s gender or race or sexual orientation. Our own biases can perpetuate these pay discrepancies in the workplace. We have to look at ourselves.”
This is no boilerplate. Venus is both employee and employer. In her capacity as the latter, she runs a fashion and design business, Eleven. She tries to bear this in mind when she considers her own employees: “Part of being happy is doing work that you love and is fulfilling and lets you have freedom.”
Would she want to work for Venus? “I’m a good boss. Management is an art. I think the biggest complaint is I don’t talk a lot. People would probably like more feedback from me. My personality is strong and silent. So communication, which is so important in the workplace, is not always my strongest point. It’s a flaw. It’s who I am.”
It’s always been this way. Other players—not least her sister—have been more front-facing. Venus’s disposition has cost her endorsements, the currency of social media followers and a level of celebrity. Which, she reckons, is fine by her.
But it’s worth remembering: Over the last quarter century, no woman player other than Serena has won more majors. No player has comported themselves for this long, with this much dignity. No player did more to close her sport’s wage gap. Her desire to fade out, strong and silent, and forego a splashy retirement tour, is hers and hers alone. The sportscape will be depleted when she decides she is done.