Why Female Surfers Are Finally Getting Paid Like Their Male Peers

For the first time in its history, the World Surf League requires that cash prizes be uniform for men and women. But gender inequality isn’t completely eradicated from the sport.

When Stephanie Gilmore (pictured) won the 2018 Rip Curl Pro, she earned $65,000 for her victory, while her male counterpart, Italo Ferreira, got $100,000 for his. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)
When Caroline Marks and Italo Ferreira held up their prize checks for winning the first competition of the 2019 World Surf League’s Championship Tour on April 7, the amount box displaying the money earned was the same. It was a first for pro surfing’s top tour since its inception in 1976.

The change came after a September decision by the World Surf League that male and female competitors would be paid equitably in all WSL events. The top-tier pro-surf tour is now one of the only U.S.-based sports requiring equal pay for men and women.

The move was long overdue. Prior to the decision, in 2018, the 36 male surfers on WSL’s World Championship Tour were competing for $607,800 in prize money, while the 18 women on tour competed for just $303,900. The league’s reasoning for these amounts was that the average earnings between male and female surfers were the same—which they were—but the allocation of prize money wasn’t broken down evenly. So when Stephanie Gilmore won the 2018 Rip Curl Pro, she earned $65,000 for her victory, while Italo Ferreira got $100,000 for his.

Income earned for a majority of the league’s top female athletes comes exclusively from competitions and sponsorship deals. However, the move for equal pay might be most crucial for young, aspiring female surfers on the World Qualifying Series, where surfers compete in various events to earn points that could lead to a spot on the prestigious (and well-paid) World Championship Tour. Many surfers on the series don’t have big-time sponsorship deals yet and rely heavily on prize money and their own savings to fund their efforts. With larger purses to compete for now, female surfers will likely be encouraged to pursue surfing as a professional sport, knowing that the financial cost of their attempts to reach the championship tour will be less daunting.

This decision by the league should be lauded, but it also took something of a perfect storm for it 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 such as the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, began to shed light on the sport’s sexist culture, which infects everything from its competitive structure to profitable sponsorship deals.

In a 2017 op-ed for The Guardian, the seven-time world champion Layne Beachley described how from her first days of learning 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, the former pro surfer Rebecca Woods detailed how she was dropped by her sponsor Billabong because, she said, 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.

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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.

Plenty of work still needs 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.

The disparity persists on the WSL’s World Qualifying Series, where there are 64 events for men on the tour and only 44 for women. This means that male competitors are given more opportunities to earn points and qualify. The league also doesn’t control all WQS-sanctioned events where surfers can earn points, making prize money inequity still possible even under the general WSL banner. This loophole garnered some negative attention during the Jack’s Surfboards Pro in Huntington Beach, California, this past March, where 1,500 qualifying points and a $5,000 check were offered as the prize to the winner, Crosby Colapinto, in a competition that was all male. Organizers of the events cited a lack of time to organize as the reason women were excluded from the contests.

To Sabrina Brennan, a co-founder of CEWS, these instances are examples of the work that still needs to be done for equality in surfing. “Obviously, we are happy with the equal pay among men and women,” Brennan explained to me. “But getting the women’s division in competitions for us was the foundation of these efforts. There are a lot of ways that people get out of paying women athletes prize money, and one is to not include women. We want to make it clear that this shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”

One such effort is a California bill requiring equal pay for any competitive event held on coastal state property that has a prize and includes more than just a male division of competitors. Even one-off surf competitions and lower-level surf leagues would have to follow suit if an event is held on a state beach. Assembly member Tasha Boerner Horvath, who introduced the bill, cited CEWS’s work as inspiration. However, the proposed bill still doesn’t require a women’s division in every competition; CEWS is fighting to get this stipulation added. The proposed amendment has already influenced other movements to include similar requirements for competitions on any type of state land needing a lease.

CEWS is also active outside of California in Hawaii, a hotbed for cultivating pro surfers and where some of the world’s most famous surf breaks exist. The organization has been advocating for women’s divisions in all surf competitions in the state. And while Brennan’s focus is mainly on surfing, she believes it’s possible that the league’s decision could eventually have a major impact on other U.S. sports down the road. “If we can do it right in California,” Brennan said, “then that would make the case that might pressure Hawaii and others to get their act together.”