Tennis legend Billie Jean King: A leader driving gender equality in sports and in life

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 6, 2016

On April 26, I had the privilege of attending a reception hosted by Drexel University honoring tennis legend Billie Jean King, holder of numerous tennis titles and prestigious awards, receiver of many accolades, and a tireless inspirational champion of equal opportunity and gender equality not only in sports, but also in the workplace and in society.

As a strong advocate of equal prize money for women and men, Billie Jean is the passionate and dedicated owner of the Philadelphia Freedoms of World Team Tennis, a coed professional tennis league founded in 1974. This is where she currently focuses much of her time, as well as raising funds to advance the cause of gender equality.

As Billie Jean spoke about her journey to remedy the unequal treatment of women not only in sports, but also in the workplace and in society, I thought about many of my female colleagues whose careers paralleled mine. I thought about their challenges and trailblazing efforts for themselves, their contemporaries and the women who followed them. They fought for respect and acknowledgment of their abilities and achievements. They helped change both societal and organizational norms.

The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that women started to gain many of the rights and opportunities that men had. Title IX, passed in 1972, increased opportunities for women at institutions receiving federal funds, including sports programs.

Billie Jean spoke about the societal changes that gave women the right to obtain a credit card in 1974 without having her husband co-sign the credit application. About 50 years ago, women faced enrollment barriers at some Ivy League universities. In many states, women could not serve on juries. Many private clubs did not permit women to be members, effectively freezing them out of opportunities to do business with decision makers, who were most always men.

Sept. 20, 1973 marked an important milestone. This is the date of the pivotal tennis match between Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs. Riggs, a former number one professional tennis player in the world, who, at the age of 55, played then 29-year-old Billie Jean in a tennis match. The match was billed as “The Battle of the Sexes” and was held in the Astrodome in Houston. Riggs had previously challenged her to a match, but she did not play him. After Riggs beat number one ranked woman player Margaret Court, Billie Jean accepted Riggs’ challenge.

Billie Jean described why the match with Riggs turned out to be so momentous. After she defeated Riggs, many women felt empowered and emboldened to raise issues with their employers regarding inequality of pay, working conditions and opportunities for career advancement. It was as if her win gave these women a voice they previously had not had.

Listening to Billie Jean’s inspirational remarks, I thought about my two daughters-in-law and the progress they are making in their careers. I thought about my two granddaughters and what societal norms will be like as they go through school, and whether their teachers will hold them to the same standards and expectations as the boys in their classes.

When my granddaughters graduate college, I hope they will have the choice to be anything they want to be, to pursue their interests and fulfill their dreams, and not be limited by their gender. This will have been made possible by trailblazers like Billie Jean, an inspirational change agent and role model.

Women are still under-represented in executive leadership positions in major corporations, and as directors on the boards of these companies. This is changing, as the leadership pipeline fills with women and as companies realize that the best decisions are made by diverse teams that bring different viewpoints to the table, not only with respect to gender, but also race and ethnicity.

As leaders of our organizations, we need to ensure that every individual at the table is not only heard, but also welcomed to provide their views. We need to ensure that individuals are judged and promoted based on their abilities, contributions and accomplishments. Not only is it good for business, it is the right thing to do.

Stanley W. Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a writer, speaker and advisor to C-suite executives on cultivating a leadership culture within their organizations. Stan is Vice Chairman of the Board of Drexel University and a director of Friends Select School and Faith in the Future. He is the former President and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Website:

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