This decision by the league should be lauded, but it also took something of a perfect storm for them to finally act. The fight to rid pro surfing of pay inequality only started to gain ground over the past few years when a number of high profile women surfers, and organizations like the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, began to shed light on the sport’s sexist culture that infects everything from its competitive structure to profitable sponsorship deals.
In a 2017 op-ed for The Guardian, seven-time world champion Layne Beachley described how from her first days of learning how to surf to her years on the pro circuit in the 1990s, she and other women were heavily harassed, discriminated against, and paid a fraction of what their men competitors earned. “I was teased, cut off, told to get out of the water because I was a girl, advised that girls don’t surf, and to go mind the towel on the beach,” Beachley wrote of her early years surfing. “These encounters taught me to stand up and fight for what I believed in.”
And in a 2016 piece on Australia’s ABC, former pro surfer Rebecca Woods detailed how she was dropped by her sponsor Billabong because, as she claims, they favored surfers who wore bikinis and looked like models.
The Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing successfully lobbied California state officials to force the hands of organizers at Mavericks—an iconic big wave surf contest in Northern California—to include a women’s division in 2017. Then last year, the CEWS set their sights on the WSL, challenging the league publicly to change its long history of gender discrimination against women. The organization’s efforts were bolstered when a viral image circulated of two teen surfers holding first-place prize checks that they won in the same competition, with the male surfer earning double.
Meet your 2018 Billabong Junior Series Ballito Pro Junior winners, Rio Waida (Indonesia) and Zoe Steyn (East London, SA)…
Posted by The Ballito Pro on Sunday, June 24, 2018
Shortly after the end of the 2018 tour, the WSL finally capitulated and announced late last year that all prize money from placing in a competition will be equal for men and women competitors (the league said that the move was not sudden, and that it had been pushing for equality “for years”). In addition, the league announced the Rising Tides–WSL Girls Program, an all-female surf clinic taking place at every championship tour stop this year. The surf spot will be cleared out just for young athletes to surf with pro female surfers on the tour.
There is still plenty of work to be done, though. Most media outlets celebrating these changes missed that the league didn’t make it mandatory that a women’s division be included in all events on the World Championship Tour. Sure enough, on this year’s schedule, there is no women’s division for the competition at Teahupo’o in Tahiti, where last year’s winner, Gabriel Medina, took home a $100,000 check.