Billie Jean King is an American former World No. 1 professional tennis player. King is an advocate for gender equality and has long been a pioneer for equality and social justice. In 1973, at the age of 29, she won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs. King was also the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
We were fortunate to catch Billie Jean King twice this year in Singapore. Here are some excerpts from her recent talk in October 2018 at the WTA Finals, and from her interview with us in March 2018 for International Women’s Day.
On what drives women who have made a difference
I think whether it’s music, or art, or business, or whatever it is—I find it’s the same with everyone. They all really have passion. They have purpose. They have goals. We were also talking about how every girl should have the opportunity to dream to be whatever you want in life. Having opportunities is important.
I had a dream for tennis, and grew up playing team sports. That was another advantage I had. My parents didn’t care whether my brother or I were any good. They cared about our health and they cared about our education. They didn’t care if we were Number One, but we drove them crazy.
My dad was a firefighter, my mom was a homemaker, and then started to work with Tupperware and Avon. That allowed her to have flexi-time so she could be with my younger brother and I. He’s played 12 years of professional baseball, which is a much bigger deal in the US than being a tennis player. I think, because we had opportunities, we had fire in the belly.
When I was 11 years old, I wanted to be Number One. By the time I was 12, I had an epiphany that made me angry. I had started thinking about my sport: everyone wore white shoes, white clothes, white socks, played with white balls. Everybody played with white that I had seen so far. So when I was 12, I asked myself—where’s everybody else?
So I promised myself, if I could become Number One, I wanted to change things. I wanted to fight for you all basically the rest of my life. By age 12, I already knew women were second-class citizens. I couldn’t articulate it, but I could already see the differences for boys and girls. I didn’t like that. I didn’t think it was right. My brother didn’t think it was right, either. You innately know that you don’t want anyone—boy or girl—to be left out, and not have a chance to be the best they can be to follow their dreams. And that’s what the rest of my life has been dedicated to.
On socialising boys and girls
Boys and girls are socialised differently. We know that girls are socialised from the time they are born, to be perfect. Girls—it’s never good enough, is it? It’s never good enough, because we’re taught to be perfect. But it is good enough. The way you are is good enough. You’re great the way you are. Just think about it—we’re always apologising. We’re taught to always think about the other person. We put ourselves last. All the time. I just want everybody to know that how you are is great.
We once had a Focus Group discussion made up of girls aged 6 to 10, in the United States. They were asked: How do you think you should be? They had to say three words. Guess what they said? Pretty. Polite. Perfect. That’s from 6 to 10-year olds. But you can never succeed at being perfect. No one is perfect. No wonder we have body issues!
Boys have different challenges, too, especially in certain countries—like being sole breadwinners. This is ridiculous. Everybody’s a breadwinner now, in some way or another. There are homemakers who decided to work and make $150,000 a year.
I’d just like you to go and think about all these issues. If we can talk to children about these issues at a young age, it would be really helpful for them, so they understand how we are socialised.
We always hear about how ‘Girls don’t get along.’ That’s not true. If we’re taught not to get along, we can live down to these expectations. It doesn’t always mean we need to live up to something. You can live down to something, too. It’s very important to teach your child that they’re great the way they are. Their actions might not be great, sometimes. They might be misbehaving. But as human beings, they’re wonderful, even if their actions aren’t.
Another word I’ve found in coaching others that really helps—I don’t say ‘you should’ do something. I say ‘you could’. I use the word ‘could’ versus ‘should’. Should is very judgmental. Could gives a bit more leeway to let the other person think.
On being a positive influence
If I see a little girl and tell her, ‘Oh, you’re so good! You’re so fast,’ I say the same things to little boys. Make it positive. Every single person in the world is an influencer. How we act, what we say, how we listen, how we receive information, how we give it: every single person has power.
So girls: you really need to empower other girls and women. This is what the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) Championship Finals do. If you bring a little girl to this tournament, they’re going to see women who are accomplished, who are trained, who have paid the price. Children pick up on that, even if it’s not explained to them. If they can see it, they can be it. It’s important for them to have these kinds of experiences. It can help them grow, and see how to come back from adversity. Just keep believing in the child—that is the most important thing.
What does the International Women’s Day theme Press for Progress mean to you?
I think what it means is that every generation has to fight for freedom and equality. It never ends and that is why it is important to all generations right now and the future generations to pay attention in a daily, hourly, minute way. Each and every one is an influencer and it is so important that all of us fight together for this change. We need this change. It will make the world a better place and we will be on the right side of history. I want to be on the right side of history or I am out of here, so I know it is the right thing to do. Take care of each other. You want each person to be able to be the best they can be, that they deserve the best that life has to offer. Let us keep going forward. Every generation fight for freedom and equality.
I wanted us both men and women to be professional. So I thought for professional tennis first, and than got in trouble for that, and then the men did not want to be together with us. I wanted us to be one union but it eventually split into women’s tennis. I wanted us to be together so that we would have had more power on and off the court, but the men rejected us.
Plan B was,’ How do we get women’s tennis strong’? Our dream in 1970 was that any girl born in the world would have a place to compete, that she would be appreciated for her accomplishments and not just her looks, and number three (which was very important to us, because we were making 14 dollars a day) was to be able to make a living playing what you are passionate about. In ‘73 we formed the WTA to make sure that all the best talent is together. We’ve done 2 tours by 73, we just to break down those barriers internally. The WTA and the men’s ATP were the reasons we just slammed the doors open and made the Grand Slams and make everybody be a lot better. We were pioneers. For me personally, I see the way I want the world to look and we are dreamers and builders. It was so horrible to be an amateur tennis player. I hated it. I kept thinking, what would happen if we would have prize money or salaries or make it professional somehow?
Everything I have fought about for tennis was about all of us. Not just the men or just the women. I wanted all of us together and that is the way you make the world strong and better.
What do you make of some of the responses from male players, that it is unfair that women get paid equally in tennis because they don’t play five sets? What would you like to say to men in tennis and men in general who feel that women should not be paid equally, because they are not putting in the same effort.
Firstly, the women are willing to play three out of 5 sets. They do not want us too.
You do not get paid in an entertainment business based by how long play. If Elton John comes and gives a concert here. It doesn’t matter if he plays for 1 or for 6 hours. The ticket is the same amount. A ticket is a ticket. We are very happy to oblige by the way. Everyone keeps thinking that we don’t want too. Personally, I don’t want the men playing five sets anymore. I want the players for as long as possible. One time a couple of players played in an Australian Open final, it took 6 hours. They could hardly walk of the court. I guarantee you that took a year of their careers.
You want quality over quantity.
We have to raise our sons to respect us, to believe in us. And even our daughters. Would you give your daughters less allowance than your sons? I hope not. To pay equally is just the right thing to do.
We hosted a private screening of Crazy Rich Asians with the legendary Michelle Yeoh, who plays the effervescent Eleanor Young in the movie. She was joined by Producer John Penotti and fellow cast members Janice Koh, Fiona Xie, Selena Tan, and Koh Chieng Mun.
Michelle is one of the first Asian women to successfully break into Hollywood, starring in award-winning films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Memoirs of a Geisha; Tomorrow Never Dies; and on the television series Star Trek: Discovery.
She was appointed UN Goodwill Ambassador in March 2016 to raise awareness and mobilise support for Sustainable Development Goals, and is a strong advocate for empowering women through education.
Here is a short excerpt from Michelle’s responses during a panel discussion held with the cast at the end of the screening—some mild spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie yet!
Describe your experience filming Crazy Rich Asians.
To be honest, when I first got the first draft of the script [for Crazy Rich Asians], I said no. She (Eleanor Young) was written as a very mean mother. In fact, when the book came out, my godson read it. When he found out I was going to play Eleanor Young, he said, “Please don’t! She’s so nasty. I won’t like you anymore.”
But then I told him: “Bear with us.” I had the most brilliant conversation with the director Jon Chu and he assured me—I come from a very traditional family—that he understood where I was coming from. I say mothers are not mean—mothers’ motivation comes from love. We all want the best things for our children. This role is my homage to all the mothers in the world, not just from Asia, but all mothers.
As you were shooting the movie Crazy Rich Asians, did you feel it was a feminist movie? If you look at its women, they took control, made choices, some of them very difficult choices, but took the reins over their own lives. Did you feel that feminist streak?
I don’t think we set off to say, “This is a feminist movie.” One of the Sustainable Development Goals, number Five, is Gender Equality. That’s all we’re asking for. We’re not trying to say we are more important than men. We are half the population of the world and we should be given equal opportunity. I think that’s the most important thing.
What this movie does is it empowers young women to think, “You should be independent. You should be well-educated. You should be given opportunities to learn so that you can have the choice to decide what you want to do. We have to dispel the old tradition where sons are culturally more preferred. We have to dispel that—the daughters are just as important.
So this movie empowers them: when Astrid Leong (Gemma Chan) turns around to face her husband—and he is the real devil of this movie! He had such a beautiful wife, an understanding wife, and he didn’t know how appreciate it because he had a chip on his shoulder. It’s not her job to teach him to be a man. That’s something you have to do, whether you’re a girl or boy. The confidence comes from you. The first person that says “no” to you is yourself, so that you immediately back off from doing anything. You could aspire to be fantastic.
I hope that this movie is empowering, especially for girls, and even for men, because we have to work together to make things work.
Women need to be educated, given equal opportunities so that they can be independent. They will make a better home, a better community, and a better society. That is what we strive for, because every voice, every step, every action, every dollar counts—it all starts with us.
Eunice Olsen is an Emmy-nominated producer, a former Nominated Member of Parliament, an entrepreneur, a TV host, an actress, an accomplished pianist, and the author of the book I’m A Girl, See What I Can Be. She created and produces WomenTalk TV, which features unsung ‘sheroines’ from Asia with compelling and powerful stories that empower and inspire.
You’re a role model for women: an entrepreneur, active in social causes, a former Member of Parliament. How do you hope to inspire other girls through your work?
I am very grateful to be able to do the work I do and to experience all that I have. In the past 6 years, I’ve had the utmost privilege of interviewing unsung ‘sheroines’ in Asia and featuring their stories in my online video series, WomenTalk. I’ve also recently written a book of poems for children featuring 10 of these amazing women. I hope that through the book, girls from a young age will feel the power, strength and inspiration I felt when I met these women, and I hope that girls and women will be inspired through these stories to be who they want to be, and not to feel afraid of anything that comes their way. I hope that if girls carry these messages of empowerment from a young age, they will grow up and be fearless.
Tell us about your work on WomenTalk TV. What made you start it? What do you hope WomenTalk TV will achieve for women?
I was hosting a variety show back in 2011 and I interviewed a woman who told me that her husband did not want to bring her out of the house so much because she was fat, and only when she lost weight was he happy to bring her out again. After that, I asked myself how many women out there were living with this and whether as women, we are talking enough about the things that affect us deeply. I started WomenTalk because I wanted women to know that they are not alone in certain situations and that there is help, and a community out there that is ready to support them.
We have had the privilege to interview 86 women over the past 6 years and this year we celebrate the programme’s 5th anniversary with our 150th episode. We hope through the stories of the unsung ‘sheroines’ and the community of experts we work with, we are able to build purposeful content that reaches out to different girls and women and empower them with resilience, hope and strength. We hope that these stories will encourage women all over the world to know that as women, we have a powerful voice and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.
You produced a film “3.50” back in 2014, which highlighted the sex trade in Cambodia. What did you learn from the experience?
So much. The answer I give will barely be enough to articulate what I’ve learnt. I learnt so much about the issues surrounding human trafficking but I also found that I have barely scraped the surface of the trafficking industry and its complexities. It is a very painful and repulsive topic but a very necessary one to have and continue. There is so much that we need to do and the issue of sex and labour trafficking links widely to various industries. There is much work that needs to be done in the rehabilitation aspect of trafficking, how much trauma and damage that trafficking can do to young girls or boys and how we need trained personnel to help them recover.
On labour trafficking: I also believe that all of us can do something, whether you are working in a corporation or a small business, you can ask questions surrounding value chains and whether the supply chain that your organisation is involved in is ethical. Even as consumers, we can make conscious decisions in our purchases.
As a former NMP, what policies do you hope the government will put into place towards achieving gender equality in Singapore? If you could return to Parliament, what in particular would you push for to empower women?
I really hope that gender equality can be at the forefront of our national conversation. The children of today are growing up in a world that is confronting the issues of gender equality and they have to be part of these discussions especially since it is SDG #5. We shouldn’t be afraid to confront gender equality issues and also we have to debunk the myth that feminism is a dirty word. Equality is a word we use everyday in our pledge and if we consider ourselves to be a first world nation, we must aspire to reach gender parity in many different levels of society, whether at home or in the workplace. After all, gender equality makes for good economics. I think as much as we aspire towards gender parity in society, I think it’s important that leadership believes and sets an example in this are and I would like to see equal representation in Parliament, in cabinet, and on boards for a start as there are more than enough capable women in Singapore to fill these positions.
Nurul Baizura, 26, has been playing netball since she was in Primary 3. She has a number of accolades under her belt including the Asian Netball Championship title and a gold medal from the 28th SEA Games. The teacher-therapist is currently the co vice-captain of the national netball team and has a total of 71 international caps to date.
We had the opportunity to meet her recently at an event.
You balance an elite athletic career and you are also a therapist. These are 2 huge career trajectories. How do you find the balance?
My employer has been very understanding and supportive or me pursuing my netball career. Initially, my principal was quite hesitant to accept me for the job, because she thought juggling netball and a job might be too heavy of a commitment. She was worried that I would not be able to pursue both and do well in both. But she did give me a chance and I proved her wrong and after the SEA games 2015, where we got the gold medal, she came to me and said that she is really glad that you are a dedicated and committed player, not only to your netball career but also at work. Proving her that I could do those things, gave her the confidence in me. Going through that for 10 years of netball and 6 years at the school was a good thing for me.
Netball was a deeply female dominated sport. How do you think that your role as co-vice-captain of the Singapore national team has provided an understanding of gender equality?
A good ten years ago, sports was generally more for males. Girls played it more at a recreational level or just for leisure. Now, the premium and competitive levels have grown, especially for netball. The sport itself has grown a lot, which may have helped to change mindsets on gender equality – that women and girls can compete at such a high level. The women in the Singapore national netball team are not professionals, meaning that we juggle between sport and a job or further education.
In 2004, Joanne Soo joined a team of Singapore women to form the first Singapore women’s team to scale Mount Everest. In preparation for Everest, Joanne summitted Cho Oyu (8,201m), the 6th highest peak in world, in 2007, and summitted Mount Everest on 22nd May 2009. In the autumn of 2011, Joanne successfully led an all-Singaporean team to summit Mt Ama Dablam (6,812m) – acclaimed for one of the most technically demanding peaks in Nepal.
“When I first started this journey, they were very few women who like climbing. When I did throw the idea to friends that I want to more than just climbing a mountain – most of them would just stare. When you are of a certain age, a lot of people have the stereotype that you should settle down, get married, get a stable job. I thought that creating a business to bring people to climb mountains is a stable job! But people thought it is very unstable and random. So I faced a lot of challenges of people thinking that it is just a one-off idea and that it would just die off. But I am glad that after so many years, I am still doing this and I am doing more now. I am glad that I chose to be myself and focus on the things that I can and want to do.”
“In this era, people are more expecting in what we are doing. If you have the intention to do something different or out of the norm in your community, I think a very important thing is to understand what is your goal in life. For me, I wanted to climb a lot more mountains. My mum always asked me what is so good a lot about mountain climbing? When you go to the mountain, there is a lot of quiet time and a lot of soul-searching, something that we don’t get in a city life. It has made me a better person. I understand what other people are going through. I have more empathy.
So if you are looking to pursue something that is out of the ordinary, then you need to be very clear about your goal. If you want to be the best mountaineer ever – it is possible. What you want is very important. If you are unsure about your goal then you will be very easily scared of the comments that come your way.”
“When you climb Mount Everest, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. Once you enter the mountain, it’s a level playing field. The mountain doesn’t lower down because you are a woman. When we were at the base camp, we (the women’s team) were like laying in a fish tank. Many foreigners came to our tent to look at the 6 women from Singapore and wondered how we can climb Mount Everest. There was quite a lot of uncertainty on us, that put so much pressure on us, and waving the Singapore flag you can’t lose out to anyone. We always seemed to be the last in the group, because we took our time and we were told that we had to go for more climbs in order to match the summit face schedule. But we didn’t agree. We just wanted to go slow. On the day of the final summit face, the first to arrive on the summit was a Singaporean girl at 3:45 am. She overtook a few men and an astronaut. On that summit day, I was the second person and second woman to reach the top. Women are considered the weaker sex, but we are not!”
Arundhati Bhattacharya is an Indian banker and first woman to be Chairman of the State Bank of India (2013-2017). In 2016, she was listed as the 25th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.
We had the opportunity to ask her opinion on equal pay at an event organised in partnership with GLG and First State Investments, in celebration of International Women’s Day last month.
Arundhati also shared her opinions and experiences on a number of other topics. Here are some of her comments:
On getting to the top:
“Women must have the courage to stay the course, not consider themselves a victim, and have the ability to self-help. Of course, teamwork is needed both at home and at the office, without that, it is very difficult for women to step in.”
On being valued in an organisation:
“Women often feel that if people don’t miss their absence, then there is something wrong. They do not have the confidence enough to understand that if your absence is not felt it’s a good thing. Because it enables you to be somewhere else and do something else. Both at home and at the office. It is not your absence that should be felt, it is your presence.”
On becoming the first Chairman of the State Bank of India:
“As soon as I got promoted, the first day in the office, they asked me what kind of business card I would like. I asked them to print my title as ‘Chairperson’, and within an hour the legal department sent me a note that there is no Chairperson in the State Bank of India Act, so I would have to be known as ‘Chairman’, otherwise sign-offs would not be legal. I rationalized to myself that the ‘man’ portion in ‘chairman’ doesn’t really mean a man; you have ‘man’ in ‘woman’ as well. This is one word and it means to be the leader of an organisation, so let’s take it as that and be comfortable with it. It may be perpetuating certain ideas that the chairman has to be a man and maybe it would have been worth to fight for it, but I decided that there were enough battles without adding this one.”
On female talent retention:
“I headed HR for 2 years and I was surprised to see that at the time of recruitment we were getting about 33% women. In the top management, we only had 4%. Where did they disappear? Where did they fall off? Why are they not with us?
So we instituted a study and found that there are three specific periods where women seem to fall off in our workforce. The first period, of course, is the childbearing years, the second period was when the children are between classes 8 and 12 to prepare for examinations. The last reason we found is when either the parents or in-laws are falling sick (old age care). I felt that if we gave them 2 years during this period, it would enable them to come back to the work stream. Imagine a person having to give up their job and then 3 months later having nowhere to go. They would love to come back and be part of the (work) family again. And we as an organisation gain so much because they are all trained workforce. Of course, there was resistance to this. In fact, some of the women came and told me that I should not have done this because it is creating a stereotype that their husbands now expect them to be at home. I agree it does perpetuate a stereotype. In fact, later on, we gave it to single men as well, because they have the same challenges. But the fact of the matter is – that’s the reality! And in the reality, how do I help? Of course, stereotypes need to change and I do tell the younger women – it is you who will change the stereotype, by asking your spouses to carry out duties at home.”
On creating equal access to career opportunities at work:
“We found it very difficult for the women to go into the rural service. Initially, we thought that it is because they didn’t want to, but later we found out that the difficulty is going and staying there. Because no one in a rural area is going to rent out a place to a single woman. So I picked a house in a central place and we would allow the women to use it as a hostel. This way their promotions wouldn’t get impaired.“
“We also ensured that each local head office had a woman doctor, either a paediatrician or gynaecologist, for the women to consult. Because I found that they were neglecting their health. They just didn’t have the time to take off from work and go get their health check-ups done. However, if you have a woman doctor on the premises, it makes it that much easier. We also made the cervical cancer vaccination free for the children of our employees and our female employees.”
On the pay gap:
“Organisations need to try and really understand why there is a pay gap. What are the causes? Are you giving the right incentives? And therefore ensuring that the gender pay gap decreases as much as possible.
The fact is that it will take time for us to close the gap. There will be a time when the tipping point is reached – when things suddenly start changing, and that will only start happening if we start closing the gap from the bottom up. It’s not something you can close from the top.
What really needs to be done is to ensure that organisations reward merit without any bias of the gender. Once this is achieved, we will have more balanced organisations.”
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