Serena Williams’ retirement highlights systemic sexism in work world

Sunira Chaudhri

Sunira Chaudhri

Toronto Employment Lawyer

“I think in life you should work on yourself until the day you die,” a motto Williams has lived by, brought her much success in the sport, including the most grand slams (23 in all) won by any single’s professional tennis player in the open era.

Serena Williams — arguably the greatest athlete of all time — retired from professional tennis following her last appearance at the U.S. Open on Friday.


“I think in life you should work on yourself until the day you die,” a motto Williams has lived by, brought her much success in the sport, including the most grand slams (23 in all) won by any single’s professional tennis player in the open era.


In a Vogue magazine article, announcing her retirement Williams said, “I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife is doing the physical labour of expanding our family.”


Williams is 40, and instead of pursuing her professional career like her counterparts Roger Federer, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods, in order to expand her family Serena had to let her career go for good.


Serena’s comment reminds us of the career obstacles many mothers and pregnant women face in the workplace. Women still routinely lose their careers following the decision to have children. And with low numbers of female leadership, this issue will only continue.


In fact, only 7.4% of Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO in 2020. Perhaps choosing to have children is impacting paths to leadership as well?


The law is evolving in some areas to protect the rights of mothers on the basis of family status.


For example, you may recall that earlier this year I covered the case of Sarah Nahum, a Director of People and Culture at Honeycomb Hospitality Inc. Nahum had been employed for four-and-a-half months when she was terminated in the fall of 2019. She was five months pregnant at the time.


The court awarded Nahum five months in wrongful dismissal damages and noted, ” The prospect of a new employee who will shortly require a lengthy leave will be unappealing to many employers and may not meet bona fide needs of their organizations.”


Nehum received five months of pay that compensated her to the early days of her child’s life; hardly the time to pound the pavement and hand out resumes.


In another recent case, the B.C. human rights tribunal awarded a marketing manager $90,000 in compensation following her termination while on maternity leave. The tribunal found the car dealership she worked for discriminated against her on the basis of sex and family status when it decided to keep her maternity leave replacement in a permanent position and failed to follow up with her about an alternate role.


While the courts may be serving up hefty court awards for new mothers who have been terminated, measured penalties will not carry the day. But, at least the courts are doing something to address the inequity mothers face in employment.


The fact is, expectant mothers face a real threat to the continuation of their careers. They risk being terminated while pregnant or, more commonly, being replaced while on leave. The legal system can sanction bad behavior only to a restricted extent and employers by and large may mistreat mothers with little impunity.


If the most powerful female athlete of all time feels her gender has hampered her career, it signals to the rest of us there is more work to be done to equal the scales for working mothers. While we have seen transformative action to revolutionize employment during the pandemic, the plight of working mothers remain. They are just as vulnerable as before.


The threat of one’s career imploding on the basis of birthing a child should be a thing of the past.


On to this week’s questions:


Q. I have been terminated with a working notice period. This was after I complained to the owner of the company that all of my responsibilities have been stripped away from me. Do I have to work out the notice period or can I get a termination package?


A. If you have been demoted and haven’t been asked to continue to work in the clearly demoted role, you may be able to assert that you have been constructively dismissed. You may not be required to work out the notice period. However, if you have only been demoted ( i.e and there are no other factors like toxic work environment) impacting you, you run the risk of your employer alleging that you are not mitigating your damages by accepting the demotion over the working notice period. Navigating a working notice period post termination can be very tricky and you should get legal advice.


Q. My HR has approached me about the elimination of my position. They have said that I can apply for a new job if one becomes available or discuss a termination package. I have been employed for 15 years as a manager. What kind of package should I ask for?


Any fair termination package should take into account your income, position, age, length of service and even your education. The availability of similar jobs in your industry is also an important factor. Added to that, a favourable termination package should consider all of the perks and benefits you enjoyed in your role including salary, bonus, commissions, profit share, benefits and pension. I often recommend to clients to work with a lawyer behind the scenes to ensure they are negotiating a package that considers a balance of all of these factors.


Have a workplace issue? Maybe I can help! Email me at and your question may be featured in a future column.


The content of this article is general information only and is not legal advice.

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