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Column: Of Serena Williams and pay gaps

Posted: September 12, 2018 2:15 p.m.
Updated: September 14, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Earlier this week, I had some interesting “conversations” on Facebook after I commented on two posts by Vox. One story focused on an Australia newspaper’s editorial cartoon about Serena Williams’ interactions with a tennis umpire during the U.S. Open. Vox’s second post actually served as an advertisement for an episode of the outlet’s relatively new Netflix series, Explained, titled “Why Women Are Paid Less.”

It was fate that I happened to see them the same day.

Let’s start with the cartoon of Serena Williams, drawn by Mark Knight of the Melbourne, Australia-based Herald-Sun. Knight is, apparently, known for his mocking cartoons of athletes, including male tennis stars, which a Herald-Sun columnist called “brats (who) disgrace themselves with tantrums on the court.”

I clicked on the link provided by Vox’s Facebook post to its article, and -- before reading a word -- looked at the cartoon.

Vox’s Michelle Garcia describes it accurately: “(The) image shows a monstrous, hulking depiction of Serena Williams stomping her racket into the ground. A discarded pacifier lies nearby, as if Williams is a toddler throwing a tantrum. In the background, umpire Carlos Ramos asks her opponent, Naomi Osaka, ‘Can you just let her win?’”

What Gomez misses is this: The way Knight drew Williams’ face and hair looks like an African or Aboriginal Australian in warrior mode, with huge, fat lips, the tongue almost sticking out.

To me, the cartoon was patently racist and sexist. My post on Facebook, essentially, said that -- while I normally don’t jump on the litigation bandwagon -- I felt Williams might want to sue the Herald-Sun and Knight, if for no other reason than to teach them a lesson.

Some folks went back and forth with me over whether this was a wise suggestion, with one person pointing out that Australian law is different from ours and doesn’t have freedom of speech codified into its constitution as we do in the U.S.

I modified my suggestion somewhat and, while identifying myself as a journalist, said at the very least readers could choose to “punish” the paper by not buying it.

One woman suggested under my way of thinking, I would have felt the folks at France’s Charlie Hebdo deserved what they got after running satirical cartoons of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in 2015.

I was horrified. Despite acknowledging that what Charlie Hebdo published was, at the very least, distasteful, no one deserved to be killed in what amounted to a terrorist attack. “Shaming via litigation is one thing,” I replied, “a terrorist act that kills people is completely another.”

And with that, I left the comments behind.

A little while later, Vox posted its Explained trailer about the gender wage gap. Now, I admit, I commented only based on the trailer and didn’t actually watch the 19-minute episode until the following morning. Here’s what I said:

“I’m a 53-year-old white American male and no matter the explanation, I will never understand this. Even if I look at it coldly, a worker is a worker and all workers should have a) the same opportunities and b) if -- after whatever weight should be given to combinations of education, experience, etc. -- those workers are equal to the task/job, they should be paid the same. Frankly, it two people -- regardless of gender, etc., etc. -- come to me for a job and, essentially, have equal experience and education (not necessarily literally, but balanced out), I should end up practically needing to do a coin toss to decide which applicant to hire. At that point and only that point, I would make a choice based on my personal judgment as to which applicant I think would fit the mix of people they’d be working with, including myself. And -- again, regardless of gender, etc. -- I would pay them the same.”

After getting a response from someone who claimed that, thanks to the U.S. Equal Pay Act, men and women are paid the same, I pointed out that, unfortunately, that hasn’t stamped out discriminatory pay practices.

The full Vox video explains that it’s really a motherhood issue: because society still sees childcare as mostly a women’s issue and (most) women make certain choices that restrict their opportunities to earn promotions or work certain hours (I’m simplifying here, mind you), they end up earning less money.

My research shows that women may earn only between 78 and 82 cents, maybe up to 86 cents, of every $1 a man earns. Even after adjusting for the choices mothers make, the pay gap doesn’t close all the way: Women still make about 94 cents to a man’s $1, which means there’s still 6 cents that might be accountable to systemic discrimination.

Whether talking about how folks are reacting to Williams or what to do about the pay gap, one thing’s still clear: America and the world are still not treating women and people of color fairly.

They both need to be fixed, now.

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