Months after a pay parity debacle sparked serious controversy, women big wave surfers are calling on the California Coastal Commission to pressure the World Surf League to address concerns over pay parity in the run-up to this year’s Mavericks Invitational contest, calling their current purse parity formula “gender-based discrimination.”
In a July 9 letter obtained by The Inertia, the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS), comprised of big wave surfers including Bianca Valenti, Keala Kennelly, and Paige Alms, explains that the existing formula the WSL uses to achieve what’s called purse parity is actually discriminatory. “Last month, the Puerto Escondido Cup first place winner, Bianca Valenti earned $1,750 while her counterpart in the men’s division took home $7,000,” the letter reads. “We’ve done the math. Valenti earned 75 percent less than her male counterpart surfing the same wave.”
Back in June, the League faced backlash after an image of Ballito Pro Under 18 winners Rio Waida and Zoe Steyn posing with their oversized checks (Waida’s for double the amount as Steyn’s) went viral. “Same waves, same result, half the pay. What’s wrong with that picture?” was the universal sentiment.
In an official statement, the WSL explained that the reason for the discrepancy was because they ascribe to a purse parity formula. The logic being that Zoe Steyn’s payout was reflective of the women’s under 18 field being half the number of competitors as the men’s division at the Ballito Pro.
By no means is professional surfing the only sport where women at the top of the podium earn less than their male counterparts. Mark Lichtenhein, chairman of the Ladies European Tour of golf explained to Al Jazeera that the issue with golf as with many sports is not skill level, but sponsorship dollars. “It’s important to understand that the money doesn’t come from how well the players hit the five-iron or how accurate their putting is,” he said. “It comes from how well the events are packaged and marketed as a product. Too many women’s sports are trying to compete with men’s sports on men’s terms. They’re chasing after the same sponsors and the same TV channels. Because of the male-biased demographics of those channels, they don’t necessarily get the same viewing figures, creating a perception that the audience isn’t there for women’s sports and that it’s just an add-on to the men’s game.”
In some sports, like tennis, absolute parity has become a reality at major contests like Wimbledon – with this year’s individual men’s and women’s champions each taking home £2.25 million (USD $2.9 million). Still, that’s likely because female tennis players have greater name recognition than men, according to one study.
For big wave surfers like Bianca Valenti, it comes down to fighting for equal pay for the same result surfing the same wave and also having equal access to a public resource. “I don’t know why anyone would want to pay women less,” she said.
Using the scheme proposed by the Committee on Equity in Women’s Surfing, men and women competitors would get paid the same amount for winning a contest as they would if they placed second, third, and so on. The only difference being the number of competitors in each contest – 24 men and 10 women – would remain the same.
“The WSL would actually save money in that case, because there’d be less competitors on one side than the other,” said Valenti.
In addition to addressing disparities in prize money, the CEWS letter implores the WSL by way of the Coastal Commission to hold multiple heats for the female division of the Mavericks Invitational and cultivate equal media access for outlets covering both contests.
“Our stance is that getting access to this public resource, which is the wave, is a privilege,” said Valenti. “And community members have the right to stand up about how it’s being used.”
For its part, the WSL emphasized its continued support for women’s big wave surfing, and pay parity.
“[The WSL] is deeply committed to the growth and support of women’s big wave surfing,” said the WSL in an emailed statement. “This season the WSL has increased the number of female competitors at our Mavericks and Pe’ahi events from six to 10, instituted pay parity across the men’s and women’s Big Wave Tour to ensure fairness and increased the number of women’s heats to three (two Semi finals and a Final).
“The WSL will look to continue expanding the Big Wave Tour for women across a number of areas, including increasing the number of female participants within the Big Wave Tour at a calculated pace. This must of course reflect the number of dedicated competitors safely capable of pushing the limits of both performance and safety at big wave venues around the world.”