Alan McCormack | Senior Associate

If Serena were called William: Sexual Discrimination

The dramatic footage of Serena Williams calling her US Open umpire a ‘liar’ and a ‘thief’ has rippled beyond the tennis court. Following two code violations for coaching and breaking her racket, umpire Carlos Ramos gave a penalty against Williams for the name-calling, leading to the now-viral clash.

“Are you kidding me?” she yelled. “Because I called you a thief?” She then called on the match supervisor, “This is not fair. This is not fair. This has happened to me so many times. It is not fair. It’s really not. There are lot of men out here who have said a lot worse than that. I called him a thief because he stole a point from me. That is not right, and you know it. I know you can’t change it. I get the rules, but I’m just saying it’s not right.”

In a post-match interview, the athlete explained what she said:

“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality and all kind of stuff and for me to say “thief”, and for him to take a game, makes me think that it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they’ve said “thief”. For me, it blows my mind. …Like Cornet should be able to take her shirt off without getting a fine. Like, this is outrageous.”

Williams’ view is that the application of the tennis world’s rules reveal a gender bias against women. The US Open rule book states that a player can be penalised for racket abuse and abuse towards the umpire, as well as a player removing their top on the court. Williams referred to France’s Alize Cornet’s controversial code violation, which she received for temporarily taking her top off to switch it to face the right way around. On the same day, both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic changed their shirts on court during matches; neither received any code violations.

Hypothetically, should this scenario have occurred in a Scottish workplace, with the US Open being a business, the rule book a set of policies, Ramos a manager and Williams an employee, would she have a claim under employment law?

Under section 13(1) of the Equality Act 2010, direct sex discrimination occurs where, because of sex, A treats B lass favourably than A treats or would treat others.

Williams could argue that she has been treated less favourably than a male colleague (Djokovic) because of her sex by employer US Open, citing the inconsistent application of US Open’s rule book/policies. Novak Djokovic was issued with a warning by umpire/supervisor Ramos after throwing his racket in his quarter-final match against Kei Nishikori. While on court, Djokovic went on to accuse Ramos of having ‘double standards.’

With this as a comparator, Williams could argue that her sanction by the US Open for code violations is an example of less favourable treatment by US Open because of her sex in comparison by her male colleague Djokovic who was not fined for the same behaviour. Williams could also ask for statistical data on how women are sanctioned within the organisation, giving her the opportunity to refer to Cornet’s example of receiving a violation over her shirt change in comparison to her male counterparts. If successful, Williams could ask for a reduction of the sanctions against her and an award for injury to feelings.

Williams’ words post-match show her hopes for the future of her profession:

“This is just an example for the next person that has emotions and wants to express themselves and wants to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me but it will work for the next person.”

Taking discrimination cases to the Employment Tribunal can be challenging, and there are strictly applied time limits. Having solicitors in your corner who specialise in employment law provides you with the tools and support you need to determine if you could have a claim. Whether you think you have a potential direct discrimination or harassment claim, having a free consultation with our Employment team can steer you in the right direction.

Alan McCormack

Alan McCormack

Employment Law Team

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