Did Sexism Play a Role in Serena Williams’ Loss?

Author: Alison Goldstein

By now, the entirety of the tennis world knows what took place on Saturday, September 8, 2018, in the final round of the women’s singles at the 2018 US Open. For everyone else, here’s what happened: American tennis superstar Serena Williams was playing against Japan’s Naomi Osaka for the US Open title. In the second set, umpire Carlos Ramos issued Williams a warning for what would be her first violation: receiving illegal coaching. Williams vehemently argued the call and demanded an apology (which was not given). Later in the match, Williams was docked a point for her second violation: smashing her racket on the ground. (This is not a more severe punishment than the verbal warning; rather, it is the penalty issued for any second code violation during a tennis match.) Then, when Williams argued this violation and called Ramos a “thief,” he cited a third and final violation—verbal abuse—and issued her the corresponding penalty: a full game forfeiture.


Ever since that match—and Williams’ reaction to it, which was very strong and very public—a vigorous debate has arisen about whether Williams should have been allowed to act the way she did, whether men who have acted similarly have gotten away with it, and whether sexism is at the root of it all. What most of these arguments boil down to is the question of whether women are penalized more often for the same behavior as men. If 100 men and 100 women shouted the same obscenity during a tennis match, and 75 women were penalized, would 75 men be penalized, too?

Unfortunately, without a record of every action every tennis player has ever taken on court—which we don’t have, and which would likely be a subjective tally anyway, given that actions are subject to interpretation; just look at the argument over whether Serena was actually being coached (and that wasn’t even an action by the player on the court!)—there’s no definitive way to answer the question of whether women and men are penalized differently for the same on-court behaviors. (Although that’s not entirely true; earlier in the 2018 US Open tournament, Alize Cornet was penalized for taking off her shirt on court, whereas Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and other male players conducted the same on-court wardrobe change during their matches that very same day and were not penalized (Maine, 2018)).

However, we do have some statistics—namely the number of fines issued to men and women for various code violations in Grand Slam tournaments.

According to data from the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open tournaments that were held between 1998 and 2018, men have been fined more often than women for every code-of-conduct violation except for coaching (Clarey, 2018). On the surface, this would make it seem that men are the ones who should be arguing about unfair treatment on court. However, there are a few factors that help to account for this disparity. Firstly, men play more tennis than women at these tournaments: in singles, men play best-of-five-set matches, while women play best-of-three. In theory, that’s 40% less time on the court for women (Clarey, 2018). (That percentage could be lower if most women played to three sets while a lot of men won in three sets rather than going all the way to five, but at the most recent US Open, men played 460 sets while women played 283, which comes out to a 38.5% difference—pretty darned close to that 40% figure.)

Secondly, there are simply more men on the court playing tennis (and accruing violations) at these tournaments, because there are more slots for them. At the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon, there are 128 singles spots for men vs. 96 for women (Clarey, 2018). That’s 25% fewer women on court, acting in ways that could potentially warrant a penalty.

If we take these two factors—fewer women spending less time on court—into account, the disparity in fines for violations between men and women decreases considerably. However, what it doesn’t do is show that women are actually fined more often than men. Thus, statistically speaking, there isn’t any real concrete evidence to show that, when it comes to being issued a violation, women are treated any more unfairly than men.

So a vast majority of tennis violations are issued for expressions of anger . . . and research shows that women are disproportionately penalized for showing anger.

What is interesting about the Grand Slam tournament violations, however, is that most of them are issued for what could be perceived as anger, or “acts of aggression.” Of the 2,052 fines issued to both men and women between 1998 and 2018, more than three-quarters them were issued for racket abuse, audible obscenity, and unsportsmanlike conduct violations. Adding in the other “anger-expressing” violations of ball abuse, verbal abuse, and visible obscenity pushes that figure up to 86.5%.

So a vast majority of tennis violations are issued for expressions of anger . . . and research shows that women are disproportionately penalized for showing anger.

In a series of three studies published in 2008, Brescoll and Uhlmann looked at the relationships between gender, displays of emotion, and status/salary. Participants were shown videos of job interviews with male or female candidates (all actors) and then answered questions about their perceptions of the interviewee’s status, competence, and the salary they deserved. Both male and female participants assigned lower status to female job candidates who expressed anger than they did to male candidates who expressed anger, regardless of that candidate’s occupational rank (i.e., a female trainee and a female CEO were both given lower status if they expressed anger than if they did not). What is perhaps even more interesting is that participants saw women’s expressions of anger as demonstrating internal characteristics (e.g., “she is an angry person,” “she is out of control”) whereas they credited men’s emotional reactions to external circumstances.

In another study published in Law and Human Behavior (Salerno & Peter-Hagene, 2015), researchers looked at how anger is perceived when it is expressed by a man versus a woman. Two hundred and ten undergraduates read transcripts from a real murder trial and viewed photo evidence. After deciding on their verdict, participants then read scripts of a jury deliberation during which one “holdout”—who was identified as either male or female based on their name—refused to go along with the majority opinion. What the researchers wanted to know was: (1) Did participants become less confident in their verdict after reading what the holdout had to say, and (2) Did the gender of the holdout affect that change (or lack of change) in confidence?

The results of this study showed very clearly that the holdout’s gender influenced how his or her anger was interpreted and, consequently, how persuasive the holdout’s argument was. “After a man holdout expressed anger . . . participants became significantly less confident in their initial verdict choice. . . . In contrast, when a female holdout expressed anger within the exact same comments . . . participants became significantly more confident in their own opinion over the course of deliberation” (Salerno & Peter-Hagene, 2015, p. 17). Thus, this study demonstrates that men are perceived as more credible and exert more social influence by expressing anger, whereas women—who express the exact same anger in the exact same words—actually lose credibility and, thus, influence.

All of this is relevant to the tennis squabble at hand. If it is indeed true that women are disciplined and discredited for expressing anger, then it stands to reason that Ramos penalized Serena to a degree that he would not have done if a man had acted the same way. Does that “make it okay” to receive coaching, smash a racket, and berate the umpire of a professional tennis match? Of course not. But it’s worth a second look at our inherent biases and how they might influence not just tennis matches, but people’s entire livelihoods.


Brescoll, V. L., & Uhlmann, E. L. (2008). Can an angry woman get ahead? Status conferral, gender, and expression of emotion in the workplace. Psychological Science, 19(3), 268–275.
Clarey, C. (2018, September 14). Are women penalized more than men in tennis? Data on fines says no. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/14/sports/tennis-fines-men-women.html
Maine, D. (2018, August 29). US Open clarifies shirt-changing rule after Alize Cornet penalty. ESPN.com. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/24513634/us-open-clarifies-changing-shirt-rule-alize-cornet-penalty
Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015). One angry woman: Anger expression increases influence for men, but decreases influence for women, during group deliberation. Law and Human Behavior, 39(6), 581–592.