“Beginning in 2006, players at the US Open were allowed to challenge judges on a limited number of questionable calls, thanks to video replay. When a player challenged a call, the video supported the player’s view 30% of the time. This held true whether player male and female. So, all players had a strong incentive to challenge calls: 30% of the time they got back a point that they had otherwise lost. You’d think every player would make sue of the right to challenge. But…female athletes, women engaged in one of the most important competitions of their professional lives, challenged calls half as often as men did.”

-From the very good book Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober

Imagine these women tennis players, some of the best in the world. They have fought hard for their dreams. They have sacrificed a lot, and endured a lot in the service of those dreams.

And yet, this little thing that was so closely tied to a point — probably one of the “easiest” things they could do to dramatically transform their careers, they didn’t do.

Male players in the US Open challenged a total of 73 calls. Women challenged only 28.

Maybe they, more than the men, assumed that the authority figure — the judge – must have got it right. Maybe they suspected the judges were wrong, but then that flash of concern was overridden by self-doubt. Maybe they felt it would come across as rude or arrogant to question the call, and they wisely reasoned it wouldn’t be good for them to question it. Maybe they felt afraid of posing a challenge and being publicly wrong.

We don’t know why they didn’t do it, but of course, something in us knows exactly why they didn’t do it. We’ve been there too.

One of the parts of the US Open story that fascinates me the most is this: the players’ challenges, whether they were male or female, were right only 30% of the time!

On the one hand, this is a huge number — for every three challenges the players posed, one would earn them a point. One of three would significantly benefit their careers, making challenging an important strategy.

But on the other hand, 70% of the time, the challenges they posed turned out to be wrong. The judges’ original calls were right — a little more than 2/3 of the time.

For me, this begs the question: Would I be willing to pose public challenges to authority, to the status quo — knowing that about 2/3 of the time, I wouldn’t “win the point”? That 2/3 of the time, my challenges won’t matter to the immediate outcome, or that I’ll be deemed wrong? Publicly wrong? Am I willing to do that because 1/3 of the time, the alternative perspective that I bring forth will change the future?

Are you willing to challenge the call? The company’s direction at work? The assumptions your industry has always operated on? The investment you’ve been assured is very safe and secure? The decisions of your school board, or your government?

I don’t play sports where there are judges. I don’t work in a hierarchical environment. I don’t have a lot of formal authority figures in my life. But when I think of challenging the calls of authority figures, I think of moments like these…

Recently, I was in the doctors office. The doctor said: here’s the plan – we are going to do A, B, and C. A, B, and C were all very unpleasant, painful, and time-consuming, while at the same time not really addressing the underlying physical problem I was dealing with. As the doctor was rushing around to get out the big sharp instrument to do painful thing number 1, I questioned the call. I questioned the plan. I said that I would really like to avoid coming back three times for three painful procedures, and asked how else we could approach the problem. Within three minutes, we had altered the plan. We agreed that thing A needed to happen, but that if we did thing A a little bit differently, I could avoid painful procedures B and C entirely.

This still has me shaking my head in amazement: that because in a split second moment, I listened to my instincts and raised a little challenge, I am not going through two very painful, invasive, unnecessary experiences.

And then I think of the calls I haven’t questioned – the times when something in the pit of my stomach was saying, “Um…this is problematic…this is off course…this is not right” but when I didn’t trust myself. I kept my mouth shut. There are some experiences in my life where not listening to that gut instinct to challenge the call has cost me a lot.

When I was about twenty, I spent a few months in therapy with a therapist who ultimately came on to me, in the middle of one of our sessions. As in, lunging across the room came on to me. Needless to say, traumatic. (I bolted out of the office and yes, I reported it.) But I think of the first few times he said something subtly odd or manipulative in one our sessions. Each time, there was that little twinge in my stomach – an instinct to challenge what this authority figure was saying, how he was approaching the “therapy.” But I ignored that instinct.

What calls have you questioned, and what instincts to question authority are you stuffing down – not listening to? What would it take for you to start questioning the calls more frequently, more naturally, more freely? Some of the time, our challenges will miss the mark – they won’t be heard, or they’ll be “wrong” – like the tennis players’ were. But some of the time, our challenges will shift the course of something that matters.




photo credit: Jeremy Galliani

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