Surfer/Writer/TEDx Speaker
Women Surfers in Sunset

Photo: Shutterstock/Darren Baker

The Inertia

By 2017, the global surfing market is expected to be a $13.2 billion industry. Within the market, women are one of the primary consumers. Ladies apparel is a major revenue generator. Ironically, while women may drive the market, there is a glass wave that they are trying to catch.

The glass wave women are paddling for is the same gap they are trying to close in other industries such as politics, business, and education. There is a disparity in the number of women in the top leadership spots. In the United States, 3% of CEOs are women. In government, the country ranks 71st in female legislative representation behind Bangladesh and Sudan. Similar disparities are found in the professional surfing tours.

The women’s tour features 17 women who compete in seven events compared to the men’s tour that features 34 surfers competing in ten events. The men have more events and they also earn more prize money. There are seven male surfers with career earnings of over a million dollars in prize money. Layne Beachley is the female with the highest career earnings, winning just over $650,000. The next highest female earner after her won almost $200,000 less over their career. The disparity in pay stems from women having fewer events and the difference in the payouts for men and women. The male winner gets about $100,000 an event compared to the female winner who earns about $40,000.

Tour winnings is only one aspect. Another is endorsements. Men are more likely to be featured in advertisements, meaning another paycheck. Women surfers are less likely to be used by companies to endorse products. Companies tend to use models meaning the model is handsomely compensated, not the female surfers.

The professional tour and endorsements are both a small sliver in the gender gap. Surf movies depict men riding huge waves or traveling the world as soul surfers. Women may get a small part in some of these movies, but they are rarely featured as the rugged surfer-explorer. There are a few movies about women surfers, but they often lack the same sense of adventure. Women are more often featured surfing their local break. If they travel, they go to a well-known surf spot.

The impact is seen at local surf spots. Yes women and girls surf. However, in a line-up of 20, there are usually only one or two women. Chasing this glass wave and closing the gap has some unique challenges. As more women surf, there may be a sense that through natural progression the landscape of surfing will change. However, a close examination of the business and political systems in the United States reveals change in an already established system is difficult. The surf industry is a well-oiled, established machine. In order to catch the glass wave, women need to take an active role.

Female surfers should start by recognizing that surfing has the same barriers that other industries have already identified. People have an unconscious bias about who can be a surfer. Women more often than men may need to balance family, work and surf; and women tend to struggle with confidence.

Fortunately, these barriers can be overcome. One way is to establish female role models in the surf community. Though it is difficult to recreate the archetype of a Kelly Slater, role models can be found in local communities. Women around the country have formed surf clubs. These clubs are a way for women to network and find other surfers they can identify with. Within these clubs, women find surfing role models. When women and girls have role models to identify with, it helps them to eliminate the unconscious bias that exists about what a surfer is supposed to look like. Women will see other women surfing. Women will see other women balancing surf, family, and work. Women will be able to identify with their stories and struggles of what it is like to build the confidence to paddle out into an all-male line-up.

Confidence is a necessary tool for a surfer, yet women who are skilled surfers may be more likely to struggle with confidence.

A company in England ran a focus group asking women at all levels in the company why they didn’t put themselves forward for senior roles. The response: women said they weren’t encouraged to apply and in many cases they lacked the confidence to try.

The same holds true for women in the water. Some women are afraid to paddle for waves. Even though they may have the skill level to catch and surf the wave, they may defer going for a wave because they lack the confidence. Having role models, seeing other women surfing, and giving each other support is a way to build confidence.

As more women surf, the sport and the industry will evolve. If women sit and wait for someone else to make the changes, they may be waiting a while. Imagine what surfing would be like if Greg Noll never paddled for that wave at Makaha. The same is true for women. Surfers like Lakey Peterson, Sally Fitzgibbons, and Stephanie Gilmore have the potential to push the sport into a new direction. With a few strong paddles from some strong female surfers, women might be able to ride the glass wave.


Only the best. We promise.


Join our community of contributors.