How King Beat the Men and Changed Women’s Sports Forever

On the evening of August 31st 2017 at the USTA National Tennis Center, Billie Jean King was wearing a grape colored blazer with matching pants, and her white namesake watch. We were in the Citizen suite at the US Open, perched just high enough for a clear view of Venus Williams playing her match, but nobody was watching the game. We were all mesmerized by Ms. King.

She made it clear that the young women in the room were part of the greatest generation for inclusion. In her words, “Everyone is an influencer.”

Perhaps history’s greatest influencer for women’s athletics, young women owe her a lot: Billie Jean King played an active role in helping pass Title 9 in 1973. The federal law that states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The law demanded equal funding for women’s sports in schools, including equal participation in sports, and equal opportunity for athletic scholarships.

She spoke of the correlation between equality in athletics, and equality in career:

“Women in C suites, smart women, 95 percent identify with being an athlete. It teaches you leadership qualities, team work.”

She explained how her famed 1973 tennis match, known as The Battle of the Sexes, was an allegory for women’s battle for equality at the time. The story, now moving to the big screen, with Billie Jean King being played by Oscar winning actress Emma Stone, changed what our world could be. As millennial women, we are closer than ever to being respected as equals.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the new movie, Battle of the Sexes. Courtesy of Citizen Watch

“That’s why I like girls to get into sports. It helps her in real life to navigate our culture, and especially business culture, which is also created by men,” she explained.

With confident posture, King told us of her true motives to play the highly televised match: She wanted people to think about gender equality, especially mutual respect.

“The reason I beat him is because I respected him so much,” said King of Bobby Riggs, played in the upcoming film by Steve Carell.

She called on millennial women to demand equal pay for equal work. Through her Women’s Sports Foundation, King continues to push for equality initiatives. She referenced Mark Bennioff of Sales Force, and his work to close the pay gap, as proof that it can be achieved.

“Women have to ask for what they want and need,” she emphasized, when asked how millennial women can help youth of the future gain equality. “Men are hired on potential, women are hired on performance.” This needs to change: When we become the leaders, she urged us to hire other women based on potential, as well.

“The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself, and the more you can shape the future.”

And with her advice, we can continue to fight for women’s equality, everywhere. Leadership and confidence gained in the sports arena moves to the boardroom. Let’s keep fighting to make sure we continue on our track record of pushing for equality, and respect for the work and history of women like Billie Jean King.

Billy Jean King today. Courtesy of Citizen Watch

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