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Billie Jean King says we'll never ‘get more women CEOs’ unless this changes

Twenty-three top CEOs — including JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) Jamie Dimon and Apple's (AAPL) Tim Cook — are set to discuss cybersecurity at the White House on Wednesday with President Joe Biden. Four of the CEOs are women.

The gender disparity among executive invitees follows the news this summer that 41 women lead Fortune 500 companies — a record high that comprises just 8.2% of the positions.

The number of female CEOs will remain low until people acknowledge that women leaders can represent the interests of everyone, not just other women, says tennis legend and longtime advocate Billie Jean King. In a new interview with Yahoo Finance, she urges people to accept that women's contributions benefit men and women alike. 

"When a woman leads, people think we only lead for women," says King, who recently published a memoir entitled "All In." "They never think of us leading for everyone. Like, 'Oh, Billie works on gender equity, she works on gender.'"

"When I do something, it might be for women — but it's for everyone," she adds. "Because when you help one person, you help the world to be a better place. So, we have to change that or we'll never get a woman president. We will not get more women CEOs." 

The challenges that face women in the workforce have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, since caregiving and childcare tasks often fall primarily to women. As of March, one in four women were considering leaving the workforce amid COVID-19, as opposed to one in five men, a McKinsey study found.

Across corporate America, women hold 28% of senior-vice-president positions and 21% of C-suite positions, according to a different study released by McKinsey last year.

King, who won 39 grand slam titles during her tennis career and led the fight for pay equity in the sport during the 1960s and '70s, chairs the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative. The organization, which boasts a star-studded advisory board that features Venus and Serena Williams, aims to advance equal representation and pay in the workplace. 

"I want women and girls to go into sports because here's what they learn: They learn the culture that men have created in business and in sports and most of our lives," King says. "It's so important that we learn how to navigate."

"I've been in boardrooms before, and a guy will say something," she says. "And I know that one of the women will say something and she didn't get it. It's either over her head, or she'll say something she didn't really hear. And it's because she hasn't been around the culture."

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, King said she experiences the bias toward diminishing women's achievements firsthand when fans thank her for what she accomplished during her career.  

"They'll come and say thanks for what you did for women's tennis, but they'll never go to a male and say thanks for what you did for men's tennis. They'll say thanks for what you did for tennis." 

"That's the way women have to be perceived," she adds. "If we're going to be in leadership positions."

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