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Serena Williams: it's good for women to get emotional at work

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Anna Brech
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Grand Slam tennis champion Serena Williams

Worried about crying at work? Don’t be, says tennis star Serena Williams – it’s good to show your vulnerabilities, and be straight in asking for help

Serena Williams has weathered her fair share of highs and lows over the course of her exceptional career. 

And now the 23-time Grand Slam champion says its perfectly OK for women to get emotional at work – even if they are often perceived as “hysterical for doing so”. 

In a searing essay for business site Fortune to mark International Women’s Day on Friday, Williams highlights research she conducted via SurveyMonkey into gender parity in the workplace. 

“Nearly one in three women say they feel that they have to hide their emotions at work to be taken seriously,” the tennis star writes. 

“This double standard is seen in the board room and on the tennis court. Women are deemed ‘emotional,’ ‘hysterical,’ or ‘aggressive’ while men who behave the same way face no such consequences. They are perceived in a completely different light.”

 Williams says that because of these stereotypes, women must band together to share our vulnerabilities in the workplace, and support one another as best we can.

“I want to remind all women reading this about the importance of supporting one another through the highs, lows, laughs, and tears, and always asking for help when it’s needed,” she says. “Trust me when I say: we’ve all been there before.”

Williams took maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, in September 2017, and says her world ranking dropped from no. 1 to 453 as a result. She also struggled with post-natal depression. 

The tennis player says she’s overcome these barriers in part by recognising that she cannot be perfect. And, although all women are “superheroes”, some decisions about work and motherhood will always be difficult to make. 

“I’m still training to win Grand Slams and sometimes I have to make hard choices about how I spend my time.,” she writes. “I’ve cried over Olympia so many times that I’ve lost count. 

“I cried when I stopped breastfeeding. I sat with Olympia in my arms, I talked to her, we prayed about it, and I told her, ‘Mommy has to do this.’ I cried when I missed Olympia’s first steps because I was in training.”

Williams reveals that her initial return to work last year was a physically and emotionally draining feat.

“I felt overwhelming guilt whenever I wanted to take ‘me’ time, with the nagging feeling that any extra moments should be spent with Olympia,” she writes.

The tennis champion got through it with the “unwavering support” of her loved ones, and calls for all women to show one another the same mutual compassion. 

Employers also need to set realistic expectations for returning mums, rather than lay down “antiquated rules”, she says.

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It’s also an issue – as Williams says – that is unwritten by sexism; research shows men are deemed likeable for their tears, while women are seen to lose credibility. However, such assumptions hold little substance. 

One US study showed that while 41% of women and 9% of men in all levels of management had cried at work during the previous year, they all said it made no difference to their subsequent success.

Indeed, it may be a good to let it out.

 Dr Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, describes bottling up our emotions in the workplace as “emotional labour”

“The effort it takes to fake or hide emotions can be compared to physical labour; it causes huge mental stress – it can make you lose your sense of identity, as if your employer ‘owns’ your emotions,” she says. 

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.