‘Actions need to match words’: 5 questions with Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King, who was the top-ranked tennis player in the world, also spent her career fighting for equality for women. She’s not stopping yet. The founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative answers questions about gender pay equity around the world, how we get there and shares her personal inspiration.

After Billie Jean King’s first tennis lesson, she said she knew what she wanted to do with her life. And while she achieved her childhood dream of the top-ranked tennis player in the world, she also was a champion in another way – working for equity for women and for other social justice issues.

When King won the U.S. Open in 1972, she earned $15,000 less in prize money than the male champion. Leveraging her position, she said if that wasn’t changed by the next year, she wouldn’t play. It was, leading to the U.S. Open becoming the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.

King, who won 39 Grand Slam titles, changed forever the way women are perceived in sports when she famously beat Bobby Riggs, a self-avowed “male chauvinist” in a match known as the “Battle of the Sexes,” which was made into a movie last year starring Emma Stone.

With her non-profit Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, today she focuses on promoting equality and inclusion in the workplace. BJKLI is one of the organizations supporting Starbucks in its commitment to achieve gender equity in pay round the world. On the eve of the Starbucks Annual Meeting of Shareholders, King took time to answer five questions:

It’s been more than 45 years since the U.S. Open began giving equal prize money to men and women who won – and that’s because of you. All these years later, in many companies, women are still not receiving equal pay for equal work. What do you think needs to change?

Billie Jean King: The single biggest challenge is for those in power – especially men at the top levels of companies – to champion those who are underserved and underrepresented in the pay equity discussion. Those in positions of power can bring about this important change and it needs to happen quickly (don’t wait, go) and at the senior-most levels of the companies and not as a function of human resources.

As you know, Starbucks has reached gender pay equity in the U.S. and has committed to achieving it globally. What does that mean to you and what should other companies be doing?

BJK: Strong leaders lead by example and Starbucks is one of the strongest leaders in the fight for equality and inclusion.  It is very fashionable today to be “in the discussion” on equal pay.  But it is entirely a different situation and a more positive step to be a leader in the space, as opposed to being a passive listener. Actions need to match the words.

You’ve travelled around the world and seen so much. As you’ve spoken to women in other countries, what do you think it would mean to them to truly have gender pay equity?

BJK: Women tell me the family gets shortchanged when equal pay is not achieved. With equal pay, women can take better care of their family. Money gives her power, status and respect. As goes the health of the mother, goes the health of the family.   

What advice do you have for women in advocating for their own pay equality in the workplace – and for other women?

BJK: If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it. It all starts with having the confidence and doing the proper preparation to state your case. And, it helps to tell your story at the most senior levels of management in the company. Girls are taught to be perfect and none of us are ever going to be perfect. We often do better in school but when it comes to the workplace, we lack the self-confidence necessary to succeed.  We need to say, “why not, instead of why” and be comfortable saying yes.

"Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing and the cherry on top, too."

You are an example of how one person can make a profound difference and inspire countless others. Can you tell me about a woman who has inspired you?

BJK: My mother was the most influential woman in my life. Actually, both of my parents were supportive of my dream and my journey. They taught me by example and were a good team together.  My mother once showed me the family budget and it changed my life forever. It’s very important for young people – especially girls – to understand the financial picture. The great thing is that my mother was so level-headed that she kept us grounded and loved us unconditionally.

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5 things to know about first-ever Starbucks Promises Day