Serena Williams engaged in a heated exchange with umpire, Carlos Ramos, after being handed code violations and which resulted in a game penalty which she described as unfair and sex discrimination.

The link

You may wonder how a tennis violation could be construed as sexism. Ms Williams claims that she witnessed many male players call umpires ‘several things’ and not be penalised. She believes that the only reason that she was penalised for calling Mr Ramos ‘a thief’ and ‘liar’ was because she is a woman.

Ms Williams is quoted to have said at the post-game press conference, ‘He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief”…, ‘I’m going to continue to fight for women.’

The norm

Commentators have noted that well-known names such as McEnroe, Connors and Agassi have berated and shouted at chair umpires, but never received game penalties or any other sanctions. This is markedly different to Ms Williams’ treatment. This apparent differential treatment raises the inference that the reason is due to sex.

Second time

During the same tournament, French tennis player Alize Cornett received a code violation because she took off a shirt on court when she realised it was worn back to front. The code violation was imposed because of the US Open ruling – female players have to change shirts in a ‘private location’. However, male players are allowed to change shirts whilst sitting in chairs. One male player changed his shirt some 11 times throughout a match and tennis heavyweight Novak Djokovic sat shirtless for several minutes in a quarter final showdown, without any repercussions from the umpires.

This recent exchange is a reminder to employers that unequal treatment can occur through consequences, punishments and sanctions imposed (in the workplace), and it can be discriminatory where they are applied differently between men and women .

What is sex discrimination?

In a nutshell, sex discrimination is when you are treated differently because of your sex. The treatment can be a one-off action, or as a result of a rule or policy based on sex. It does not have to be intentional to be unlawful.

Equality Act

The Equality Act 2010 states that an individual should not be discriminated against because of their sex, or if they are connected to someone of a particular sex, or perceived to be a particular sex.

Although, Ms Williams’ is not an employee; the analogy is the same. She is alleging that she was discriminated against because of her sex; i.e she was treated worse than someone of the opposite sex (a male tennis player), in a similar situation (facing a code violation).

The Williams row may be just an indication of the different standards umpires will accept or perhaps it potentially highlights an institutionalised sexism in the sport.