Spot the difference above? Same ocean, same waves, same result, half the money. If you think the gender pay gap isn’t real, look again. Last week, this photo at the Billabong Ballito Surfing Pro Junior Event in South Africa showing female surfer Zoe Steyn taking home just half the money of her male counterpart went viral. The debate was on regarding the disparity in prize money between male and female athletes. But what followed that blast of reactionary, somewhat misinformed, commentary was a very important conversation and an important move from the event sponsors. But, let’s back up.
In 2014 the World Surf League, which implements criteria to determine ratings and prize money, was one of the first major sporting organizations to commit to total gender parity in terms of prize money (sometimes called “prize purse parity”). They also invested millions of dollars into the women’s tour as their primary focus and have done a brilliant job of it. They’ve increased the prize money for the women, allowed for equal time in the water and improved every aspect of the women’s tour. So how is what looks to be pay disparity still surfacing at surf competitions around the world?
For one, the WSL operates on a prize-money-per-surfer concept. In other words, prize money is dependent on the number of competitors. In the case of the Billabong Ballito Pro Junior, the men’s prize money was double because the field had double the amount of competitors. In its a press release following the controversy, though, the WSL itself conceded that after athlete withdrawals only 24 of the original 32 registered male surfers competed in the event, while 14 of the 16 registered female surfers competed. The purse was based on the original count, not the final count. “This is an important topic to us,” said the WSL in a statement. “We are committed to providing a platform for the best surfers in the world, regardless of gender, and recognize that prizing is an important factor in creating that platform.”
Even though this understanding provides greater context, it should not explain away the controversy or silence the conversation that’s transpired since. This single image still sends a harmful message to society about the value of women’s achievement in sport. As Grrrl Clothing points out, “If we don’t show the world from a young age that we are equal, what hope do we have for the next generation later in life?” Female athletes generally earn less through sponsorship contracts, and less in prize money too, it would seem, but when their travel, training, and living costs are the same, can this still be justified?
When asked why the WSL could not open up the women’s division for contests like the Ballito Pro to more competitors, WSL Australia Regional Manager Will Hayden Smith told ABC News “the demand simply is not there.”
The perceived lack of demand highlights a complicated issue. It’s true that despite the rapid growth of the surf industry, female participation remains lower than that of males, with only two women surfing to every eight men. And I’m sure for lots of women, myself included, the idea of competing to be the best and comparing ourselves to other women is unappealing, to say the least. But, I’m also sure that there are lots of girls and women out there who, given the opportunity to compete, would love to prove themselves and achieve sporting success on a competitive level. Stymieing hopefuls because of a lack of demand is not only short-sighted, it flies in the face of the WSL’s “build it, and they will come” attitude about continuing to invest in women’s surfing. Instead of accepting that reality as given, work to understand the barriers causing this disparity, and begin looking for solutions to overcome surfing’s male-dominated image.
Another major barrier here is brands that value looks over abilities and achievement among women. After being dropped by longtime sponsor Billabong two years ago, Rebecca Woods, a former top 10 surfer, spoke out against sponsors who ignore female talent in favor of model looks.”I didn’t particularly feel like I wanted to get naked to become more famous,” she told ABC. If only women who look a certain way get financial support, then the sport is being cut off from a whole world of talent.
Numerous structural factors are to blame, including the fact that women’s sports are not given an equal platform in the media. According to University of Minnesota researchers, women comprise 40 percent of all athletes but get only four percent of media coverage, and a lot of that coverage is sexualized. In surf advertising, how frequently do we see an image of men surfing next to a woman posing on the beach in a small bikini? Studies show these kinds of images actually make us doubt the athletic abilities of women, leave young girls and women feeling excluded from sports, and perpetuate the power dynamics that are part of a much broader groundswell of misogyny.
While the current WSL policy leaves a lot of room for improvement, it was event sponsor BOS Organic Ice Tea that became a voice of reason in the situation, offering not only to pay the difference in prize money but also committing to only sponsor events that pay equal prize money for equal results.
How the WSL responds will continue to evolve. Still, BOS’ decision to ensure equal prize money can only be seen as a positive progression for female athletes and will likely result in waves of change throughout the surf industry. Or at least, keep an important conversation going.