Think This Was Just About Serena Williams? Think Again.

Once again, sports and politics collide.

Posted Sep 10, 2018

By now, everyone was either watching live or saw the highlights afterwards of a heated exchange between Serena Williams and the Umpire at the 2018 U.S. Open that may have significantly determined the outcome of the game. While at the stadium the crowd was clearly on Williams’ side, the inevitable backlash has since reverberated, perhaps most grossly personified by a cartoon depiction in an Australian paper this morning that has clear racial undertones in its depiction of Williams as a bloated and overgrown baby.

Williams very eloquently shared in the post-game press conference that she was standing up against sexism in the sport. I found it interesting that while the double standards regarding treatment of male and female athletes was at the center of this dialogue, the equally important element of race and other aspects of identity was not as openly discussed. Perhaps because that would make for a much messier discussion, and oftentimes inequality based on gender is quantifiable in a way that discrimination based on other aspects of identity may be harder to tangibly demonstrate.

Here is what social psychological research can add to this discussion. Double standards are very clearly identified in research that measures reactions to male and female behaviors. Historically, there is a lot of literature on double standards regarding sexuality, risk-taking behaviors such as alcohol consumption, and aging. More contemporary research has attempted to include how men and women may be treated differently in professional environments, in addition to recognizing how other aspects of a person’s identity, such as race or ethnicity, intersects with how they are treated based on their gender.

As one example of how double standards have been demonstrated in social scientific research, when males and females are trained to be equally assertive in front of participants, while the males are identified as assertive, the females are identified by participants as aggressive. So equal levels of assertiveness are perceived differently depending on whether the actor is male or female. Moreover, other research that identifies common qualities we associate with masculinity and femininity find that being deemed “masculine” almost entirely overlaps with the qualities participants associate with being “successful”. In contrast, it is impossible for women to uphold the qualities associated with “feminine” while also being “successful” as they wildly oppose one another. Such a finding clearly demonstrates challenges women experience as they penetrate professional environments, particularly ones that reflect male-dominated industries. These disparities will clearly be amplified in the sports world, which has traditionally been both male and white-dominated.

Perhaps just as compelling, commentators were wondering if the Umpire would have been as combative with Williams’ challenging him on his calls had she been a man. Abrams et al. (2013) found that there is indeed a double standard when it comes to transgressive behavior based on the status of the athlete (are they in leadership roles, their group status within the team, etc.). Moreover, transgressions may be more tolerated if the athlete is perceived as belonging within the same group, thus suggesting a male athlete acting out on the court may be tolerated more than a female one when the judge is also a male.

More generally, research has identified that even when men and women demonstrate equal levels of performance on the job, that women are often, “held to a stricter standard of competence than men” (Foschi, 1996, Abstract). Research specifically focusing on intersectionality and the socially constructed gender roles of black women further identifies that they are often working against the stereotype of being perceived as overly assertive or outspoken (e.g. Fasula et al., 2014). Perhaps in this context, we can have even greater appreciation for Serena Williams’ success as an athlete, given all of the systemic forms of discrimination that an athlete with her characteristics would be up against.

This is at the crux of double standards based on gender—while males are given permission to act a certain way, identical behavior by their female counterparts is met with backlash, hostility, or other forms of social rejection. These reactions are often subtle and unconscious, so while the Umpire may have legitimately believed he was treating Williams the same way he would treat any other athlete, his assessment of her behavior as reflecting verbal abuse, for instance, cannot realistically be separated from the fact that she is both female and a woman of color.

So to all those commentators who have taken to social media and referred to Williams’ “outburst” as somehow reflecting her being spoiled or a brat, perhaps consider that personality assessment alone is an inadequate explanation for what transpired. A more sophisticated understanding of how gender and race impact perception by others is needed, as is a general understanding of how privilege impacts not only the way that we act but also how others react to our behaviors.

Once again, sports becomes a significant catalyst for a dialogue about pressing issues in our culture regarding gender, race, and other aspects of identity. I applaud Williams for risking her individual performance this past weekend in service of a greater good, and hope that the courage she demonstrated in speaking out against the sexism that clearly still persists in professional sports will lead to meaningful and necessary systemic changes within the industry.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2018


Abrams, D., Randsley, G., Travaglino, G.A. (2013). A Double Standard When Group Members Behave Badly: Transgression Credit to Ingroup Leaders. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105 (5), 799-815.

Fasula, A.M., Carry, M., Miller, K.S. (2014). A Multidimensional Framework for the Meanings of the Sexual Double Standard and its Application for Sexual Health of Young Black Women in the U.S. Journal of Sex Research, 51(2), 170-183.

Foschi, M. (1996). Double Standards in the Evaluation of Men and Women. Social Psychology Quarterly, 59 (3), 237-254.

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