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A Spat Over Clothes at the U.S. Open Shows the Power of Women Supporting Each Other at Work

A brouhaha over a sports bra illustrates an important lesson for women, whatever their profession.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 04 Sep 2018

A Spat Over Clothes at the U.S. Open Shows the Power of Women Supporting Each Other at Work

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It's been scorching at the U.S. Open so far. Which means lots of male players have changed their sweaty shirts mid-match. But last week when Frenchwoman Alize Cornet came back from a heat break with her fresh shirt accidentally on backwards and then discreetly switched it around on the sidelines, revealing her sports bra, she was hit with a code violation for "unsportsmanlike conduct."

The ridiculous double standard of the penalty caused an outcry and the USTA quickly reversed the decision, clarifying that female players can change their shirts as needed.

All in all it wasn't much of a scandal -- though the incident was a crystal clear illustration of the sorts of biases that can trip up women of any profession -- but while the case of the not so scandalous sports bra was closed quickly, it teaches a lesson that professional women in any industry can use to succeed.

There is strength in numbers.

The USTA didn't just spontaneously do the right thing. They were nudged into seeing sense by a chorus of voices supporting Cornet, according to Quartz. Former number one ranked female tennis player Tracy Austin tweeted her outrage.

Another former number one, Martina Navratilova told The Daily Beast, "If one is wearing a sports bra then of course it should be allowed. And if one isn't wearing a sports bra, then it still should be allowed--although I for one wouldn't do it." Cornet also reported that lots of players supported her privately.

"When I came in this morning in the locker room, like, many players came to me. Even former players...So all the players were supporting me for that, and were telling me that if I get fined, we would all be together and see the WTA [World Tennis Association], you know, and make a revolution and stuff," she told Tennis magazine.

What happens when women stick up for each other at work

Tennis players -- particular female tennis players -- sticking up for each other might not sound like a radical move, but it is. First, it's radical because research shows that women who advocate for other women at work can pay a price for it. "Senior-level women who champion younger women even today are more likely to get negative performance reviews, according to a 2016 study in The Academy of Management Journal," reports JBK Partners co-founder Anne Welsh McNulty on HBR.

Second, it's also radical because women amplifying one another's voices is an important tool to help talented women achieve their full potential. "The antidote to being penalized for sponsoring women may just be to do it more -- and to do it vocally, loudly, and proudly -- until we're able to change perceptions," McNulty also writes.

She describes her own efforts to advocate for other women, including hosting lunches and acting as a mentor, and notes these steps have had many benefits. "Coming together as a group made people realize that their problems weren't just specific to them, but in fact were collective obstacles. All of this vastly improved the flow of information, and relieved tension and anxiety. It reassured us that though our jobs were challenging, we were not alone. In doing so, I hope it lowered the attrition rate of women working at my company," she attests.

Watching out for examples of bias -- whether it's an unfair call from an umpire or an ignored idea in a meeting -- and then offering support is simple -- it's also powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it works not just in sports, but also at the White House.

During the Obama administration, "female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called 'amplification': When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution -- and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own," reported the Washington Post.

So whether you're fighting over sports bras, stolen ideas, or snide remarks about having to leave to take care of the kids, remember the incredible power of amplification. One woman might be powerless to fight unfairness. A chorus of women is too loud to ignore.

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