As I contemplate returning to competitive surfing, apprehension comes to the surface. I expect to wait all day, only to be told at dusk that female divisions will surf the following day and perhaps not until the day after that. I expect to compete with little support while male members of the clan are sought out and cheered on. I expect to read newspaper reports that make little mention of female divisions in surfing. And I expect to be judged always by men because there are still very few women on the judging panels of surfing competitions.
As part of the 2017 International Women’s Day celebrations at the Sydney Opera House, Geena Davis shared her extensive research about the representation of women and lack of female characters in a presentation called ‘The power of our media: How film and TV can help us achieve gender parity’. Davis implored creators to “add women on screen, behind the scenes as policy makers. Include women.”
Likewise in the world of sports. In surfing, though it may appear that women are present, the question needs to be asked: Are event organisers bringing a conscious practice to their craft in support of gender equality?
As Lizzy Marvelly writes in That F Word: Growing up Feminist in Aotearoa, “Much is made of the fact that we are the first country in the world in which women could vote … however … equality enshrined in the law is somewhat removed from the reality of everyday life. Women have the legal right to be safe from harm, yet New Zealand has some of the highest rates of sexual violence, domestic violence and violence against women in the OECD.”
Women surfers are constantly fighting for their identity, position and place as equal members of their surfing community. It needs to be said that women have prioritised surfing by way of taking time off work to compete only to be told on arrival that there are no female divisions after all, and if they want to compete it must be self-managed, done away from the main surf break, without the previously advertised prize pool and without results posted to count toward circuit points. These lived experiences make it clear why women in 2019 (as Lizzy Marvelly says) “have to explain why we still need feminism.”
In 2018, women in Saudi Arabia were given permission to drive. Celebrations were perhaps deeply muted by the fact that these women needed to be given permission rather than it being a human right. And despite all seemingly liberated advances into broad-ranging employment, women in New Zealand still earn on average 15 per cent less than men. When taking into account the wages of women who identify as Pasifika, women who identify as Maori and women of other non-Pakeha ethnic groups, this statistic has not changed since a 2014 article in The Press by Siobhan Downes, ‘Feminists say their work not done yet‘.
In 2014, when Gabriel Medina was crowned the men’s world surfing champion winning $431,500 in prize money, Stephanie Gilmore was crowned the women’s world surfing champion. She won $292,500. And there has been little change to the disproportionate pay since then. In 2018 Gabriel Medina won $473,200 and Stephanie Gilmore won $343,450. And according to an article published in the Gold Coast Bulletin by Arden and Greenwood in 2014, surfing has a long way to go compared to tennis, where the Australian Open $33 million prize pool is shared equally between women and men and the male and female winners each receive a top prize of $2.65 million.
Some may argue that the fight for women’s rights has been won despite obvious discrepancies. Women, however, need to be ever more resourceful in order to carve out a meaningful life beyond immediate attachments and cultural experiences. As Sandra Coney puts it in Downes’ article, women have “won sufficient freedoms and could get satisfaction from a lot of areas of life that had been closed to them.” However: “A ‘binding cause’ no longer exists, mainly because the discrimination that exists is so subtle and entrenched.”
I believe that the greatest act toward emancipation is to always be present. To be out there catching waves in the surf. And choosing to exercise this freedom is the greatest example I can offer toward gender equality. My place of freedom may not be the place of freedom for others but the essence of what it means can be shared. As a surfer the ocean provides me a tangible sense of my place on Earth. As a surfer I have come to know that actions need to be placed in the very moment they arrive and this requires sensitivity to the environment and a deep trust in oneself.
“Is he lying on the board?” A woman asked me one day, whilst she gazed intently out to sea. Without waiting for a reply, she continued: “No, he’s sitting on the board. He’s sitting on a surfboard,”
The woman’s companion then piped up, “He’s waiting for the big wave.”
I was able to enlighten them. The surfer’s name, I told them, was Catherine.
Perhaps next time, when the women look out to sea, they’ll consider that women are there too.
Prior to the 2019 tour season, the World Surf League (WSL) announced that women are to receive pay parity across all WSL sanctioned tours. This announcement not only sets a standard for equality in the sport of surfing but it also leads other sporting bodies to support change and transformation. As Natasha Ziff said at the WSL Awards in March 2019, the WSL governing body is at the “forefront of pay equality”. This pivotal decision by the WSL certainly shouts out to national surfing associations and local boardriding clubs to address how they can better support their female athletes.
Nicola Wilson-Jones writes and surfs in Dunedin, New Zealand. She holds a BN, GrdDipTchLn, IYTA (NZ) Yoga Teaching Diploma and Diploma of Anthroposophical Studies.
- Arden, L & Greenwood, E. (2014, March 3). Despite an increase in winnings the gender gap has not been bridged in the surfing prize pool. Gold Coast Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.goldcoastbulletin.com.au/news/gold-coast/despite-an-increase-in-winnings-the-gender-gap-has-not-been-bridged-in-the-surfing-prize-pool/story-fnj94idh-122684321
- Downes, S. (2014, July 22). Feminists say their work not done yet. The Press, A6 News, Sandra Coney cited in Marvelly, L. (2018). That F Word Growing up Feminist in Aotearoa. Auckland, New Zealand: Harper Collins Publishers p.xiii. & p.xv.
- Davis, G. (2017, March 10th). The power of our media: How film and TV can help us achieve gender parity. Retrieved from: http://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture.article/2017/03/10/power-our-media-how-film-and-tv-can-help-us-achieve-gender-parity
- Marvelly, Lizzie. That F Word: Growing Up Feminist in Aoteoroa. Harper Collins, 2018.