It seems pretty straightforward: If you put in the time and the effort and do a good job, you should be rewarded for your work, right?
Not always, as tennis superstar and Ellevest backer, Venus Williams, points out — it isn’t always that simple for professional women.
Which makes sense — Venus has overcome her own fair share of challenges, including leading the fight to get women tennis players at Wimbledon the same amount of prize money that men tennis players did (which finally happened in 2007).
Venus and I sat down in New York to chat about her experience fighting for equal pay in tennis, deciding to talk about money even when it’s not considered “classy,” and why she believes investing in Ellevest has helped her join an important girls club.
You’ve been an advocate for equal pay for women in tennis since you were a teenager. Tell us what drove you to take up this cause.
Really just arriving to the sport and realizing that things weren’t equal. As a child, I grew up and wanted to go out and win big titles. But you get there, and you realize, “Oh, wow. There’s a lot more to this than just winning,” and it’s not, at this point, just about yourself.
Tell me what it was like engaging with the other women, fighting for equal pay. Was everybody on board?
Not all the women felt that they deserved equal prize money, and I think sometimes if someone tells you you don’t deserve it, then sometimes you can believe that. But I believe, at this point, all women do, and thankfully, at this point, women don’t have to experience that anymore in women’s tennis.
What was the hardest part of the fight?
The hardest part of the fight, I believe, is just breaking the mold and breaking down patterns from the past, and people believing that this was the right way, so it was the only way. Also, facing comments from tennis players, the men’s tennis players, all of them who have sisters and moms and daughters...it was disheartening to see that.
But never for one moment did I not think that we were going to achieve it, and it was very exciting to be on that path...it came a lot sooner than I ever thought, so in a lot of ways [I] wasn’t prepared when that call came in. It was pretty amazing.
What advice do you have for women today who are fighting for equal pay...because women in business don’t all have equal pay?
I would say it’s definitely not, necessarily, about you; it’s about all women and that we all have to definitely build each other up. I think once you take the “I” out and you put in the “us,” then you’ve got the equation.
You’ve taken the fight for women and against racism off court as well. Why did you decide to do that, what are your goals, and how can we support you in your work?
I just found myself in situations that I never thought that I’d be in. I grew up living a sheltered life. All I did was go to school, play tennis, go to church, and that was it — and play with my sisters. I had no idea [of] all this other stuff that was out there in the world; once I got out there, I was kinda shell-shocked. So, anywhere that I can make [a] difference, I do try. You don’t always know what situation you’ll be thrown into.
And why is helping women gain financial control a priority for you?
Because when you’re in control, you have options. You have options to live the life that you want; you have confidence because you realize you have options. It’s all about having a choice, and that's super important. You’re in control of yourself, control of your family, control of your future, and that’s very important for women because we really, actually, determine where this world goes. Because we’re the backbones, we’re the moms, and we’re the sisters that take care of the daughters that take care of the parents when the sons go off in a different direction. So, we’re very important to the backbone of society.
Right. And women have also been called a larger emerging market than China or India.
I love that.
Yeah, I know. I do too. So, what advice do you have for women who are trying to get comfortable thinking or talking about money and their financial futures? Because society tells us not to, society says...money’s sort of a tacky subject. I found that money is not tacky, and it’s okay to be out there...Sometimes you go places and you feel like, “Well, maybe they won’t think I’m classy if I ask for the price.” Who cares about class? Get it right.
Agreed. If a woman were asking for advice right now on getting a raise that paid her equally with a man in the same job, what do you recommend? I would say be clear on what you want, and don’t wait to the last minute. I would say start the year before, saying, “Can I be eligible for a raise in six months? I want to hit these goals,” and, obviously, hit them.
But I would definitely say be proactive, and people honestly don’t mind if you’re clear and honest. I think when you don’t ask for what you want, you never get it. And if you can’t get it there, then move on.
So, why did you invest in Ellevest, and how do you hope to advance women’s equality? I invested in Ellevest because I wanted to be part of the girls club because the guys have the guys club…[I am a woman] I’ve had to go through things too, but I’ve had an opportunity to just do whatever I wanted because I could win my match. And you guys do win your matches, but it doesn’t always mean you’re going to get rewarded for it.
So, I felt like what you were trying to do is reward all women, and I wanted to be a part of that. And really anything else you wanted to be a part of or were doing, I want[ed] to be a part of that too because I want to be in the girls club. That’s how, I think, we all have to be.
Right. Well, I think you exemplified so early women helping women can be how we get ahead. It’s when we allow ourselves to be isolated that it makes us small and it makes us powerless. It’s really working together that we become so powerful. What I always say is that there’s always room for more, and I’ve always been the kind of person...I like to learn from other people and I like to see other people do better, and I like to be a part of that. We have to have that attitude because it actually makes you better and it makes you stronger, whether you realize it or not.
You’ve had so much energy for what you’ve done for so many years, as the press keeps reminding us. For us as businesswomen who are in there every day trying to get it done, how do you motivate yourself? I motivate myself because I hate losing. I’m over that. I love my job...so maybe part of that is breaking down barriers...that this next generation of players will be able to play how long they want and there's no stigma to it. But for me, it’s just about challenges and knowing that I still have a lot to give; so, at this point, I can’t look in the mirror and quit knowing that I still have more to give and more to get.
I’m the same. I wouldn’t be able to leave knowing that I can make a difference in other women’s lives. We could have more vacations, though. That’d be nice.
I’m up for that. What would you tell women who aren’t investing yet? I think a lot of people don’t invest because they're afraid, and they’re afraid of what they don't know. They don’t want to seem like a dummy when they walk into the office with their accountant or with their financial advisor and [there are] things there that they don’t understand...I believe people who haven’t invested are either afraid or they’re just like — was it the grasshopper? Who just thought that the sun was going to last forever, and then it didn’t. The sun will not last.
So, just do it. Just do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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