“He’e wahine ka lani.”
These are the words that introduce a chapter to surfer Lauren Hill’s book, She Surf: A history of surfing.
The words make reference to the ancient Polynesian art of surfing, which was pioneered by women.
In April this year, surfer Lucy Small received $1,500 for first place in the Curly Maljam competition.
Her male counterpart received $4,000.
Small held up a cheque worth less than half the men’s prize money and reminded the North Curl Curl crowd they had both surfed in the same conditions.
“Thank you so much to the sponsors for the money they’ve put into the event,” she said.
“But I would say that it is a bittersweet victory, knowing that our surfing is worth less than half of the men’s prize money.”
Following media attention, Surfing NSW changed its rulebook to make it mandatory for clubs affiliated with them to offer equal prize money to male and female competitors.
Global Surf Industries also offered Small the gap in prize money. But, for Small and many other female surfers, it’s an ongoing battle for recognition.
While 90 per cent of clubs are affiliated with Surfing NSW, there is still a portion of clubs hesitant to offer an inclusive space and opportunities to female surfers.
This resistance sparked Small’s creation of the ‘Equal Pay for Equal Play’ petition, which called for NSW government grants to only be offered to clubs that commit to equal prize money, resources and opportunities for female surfers.
Greens MP Abigail Boyd’s motion to the Upper House to support the campaign was passed just this week, after Greens MP Jo Haylen last week also moved a motion to support the petition in the Lower House.
“It’s so exciting and I’m so happy to have our campaign recognised and supported by the Upper House … It feels like it’s just a matter of time before we can get this legislated,” Small said.
“It’s a promising step in applying pressure from the whole Parliament to legislate the changes we’re calling for.”
Small hopes legislation for equal opportunity in surf clubs will remove the prevailing hesitancy of many young women and girls to take up surfing.
“And, sometimes, even I don’t paddle out because the vibe in the water is so hostile.”
Small described surfing in Cronulla as “extremely challenging”, when she is often one of the only women among 40 men.
“[It ranges from] older guys being patronising in terms of telling you where to sit in the line-up or how to catch a wave … to men seeing you paddling or being on the wave and cutting you off anyway,” she said.
Small described an incident earlier this year when she was surfing at Crescent Head, where an older man surfing a heavy board ran straight into her head as he cut through a wave instead of pulling off, despite seeing her paddle out.
She was left with a mild concussion and a sliced shin, but no apology.
“I was sitting there with an ice pack on my head and, instead of saying sorry or asking if I was okay, the guy who ran me over went on to try to tell me how it was my fault and I didn’t know what I was doing because I wasn’t a local there,” Small said.
“It could have given me a serious head injury, and for what?”
While she’s optimistic about Surfing NSW’s changes to the rulebook, she feels the petition is necessary to change some prevailing hostility towards female surfers.
Small said she knew of one club that continued to offer unequal prize money and had been resistant to her offers to work with them.
“I think that’s sort of the idea behind the petition, to not just go, ‘It’s changing at the elite level’ and hope that clubs and organisations will follow suit, but to actually try [to] push at the grassroots level at that stage when talent is being fostered … [that’s] where the culture of surfing comes from,” Small said.
She hopes that, through the petition, progress at this local level will change the drop-off rate for girls in their early teens.
More equal pathways
Small also hopes it will create pathways for female surfers to become more involved on all levels, including as judges, administrators of events, presidents of clubs and coaches.
She says many young women feel defeated when they see men reach heights in surfing and having more professional pathways.
“I’ve noticed that, even in myself, I can’t be bothered dealing with all these men,” Small said.
“The kind of culture that tells me I can’t belong … it’s exhausting.”
While North Curl Curl club has committed to equal prize money at their next event, Small has never received an apology.
A different era
While many now view women’s surfing as equally compelling — with the World Surfing League offering equal prize money for men and women — for long-time North Curl Curl club member and secretary Phil Nicols, it was a breakthrough to introduce women to competition a decade ago.
“You sort of tend to get lost in your own backyard,” Nicols said in response to Small’s mention of the club’s unequal prize money.
“We’ve been running the company for the best part of 10 years, and we fell back into a groove where, right back in 2010, we gave the men more [prize money] than the women.
“I guess we had been a little bit blind or insensitive to the general community values.”
However, Nicols said there might have been a greater complexity to the issue, one that responded to market desires.
“Is there not here, a question where there has to be some sort of the economics coming into the domain?” he said.
“Do you ever seriously think that women’s rugby league or women’s rugby union will ever get equal pay?”
Nicols pledged to enforce equal prize money and embrace social progress, but insisted the club “didn’t do anything to demand an apology”.
For professional surfers such as Pauline Menczer, the pushback is familiar.
“This was a never-ending argument, back in the day, that the women will never surf as good as the guys,” Menczer said.
“But how do you know if you don’t put the same kind of effort into us?”
In 1988, Menczer won the women’s amateur world title and, in 1993, the women’s world championship — with Layne Beachley the only female competitor to outnumber her surfing event victories.
Menczer was a source of inspiration for Small, who had seen the iconic documentary ‘Girls Can’t Surf’, in which the pioneering champion features predominantly.
“My response was being a bit proud as well, that the movie gave her the courage to speak up,” Menczer said.
“All the women feel that way but, sometimes, you just need someone a bit more feisty to do the pushing.”
Fighting a stereotype
Menczer fought plenty of resistance herself competing as a female, gay surfer with arthritis in the late 1980s and 1990s.
It was an era where female surfers were few and far between — and the response to them was hostile.
Menczer recalled a surfing competition at Huntington Beach where the men received around 10 times the amount in prize money as the female competitors.
After ending her thank you by saying she hoped the “event will be bigger and better next year”, she was told to issue the organisers an apology or risk being fined for appearing ungrateful.
“The money was so pathetic,” she said.
“If you won a major tournament, it was $8,000, and normally most surfers would only win one or two events a year, on average, about the same as the cost to travel the world.”
She was a world champion surfer, but Menczer was humbled by the “wheeling and dealing” to make an income to simply survive.
The professional surfer was forced to steal cases of Coke cans from events, which she would sell from her van to pay for her accommodation, or sell Levi Jeans on tour overseas, for more than five times the price she paid for them in America.
At one point she couldn’t even cover the costs to visit a doctor for her worsening arthritis.
Paving the way
In the late ’90s, surfing clubs weren’t a welcoming place for women, according to Cronulla Girls Board Riders Club president Jen Ward.
Establishing an all-female surf club was the solution to provide “a welcoming, comfortable place for women to come and surf”.
“In our club, women are supportive of each other,” Ward said.
“If someone catches a good wave, or does really well in a competition … everyone’s lifting each other up”.
Ward said she feels things have improved a lot for women in the surf, compared to the “aggression” of the ’90s and early 2000s, where male surfers would often drop in on women.
However, many female surfers continue to sit on the periphery when they paddle out on the line-up, with some male surfers continuing to dismiss female surfing competitions.
Hogging the waves
Ward said women were “always battling men to stay off our bank”, whereas the space was completely cleared during men’s competitions.
In their last competition before lockdown in June this year, Ward said they had “problems with guys surfing in our comp zone”.
Even after getting out the loudspeaker, she said some of the men refused to move.
Ward said while some move after being asked, others don’t and they experience “some aggression in the water”.
“There’s some yelling, generally between older males,” she said.
“I think it’s that old-school mentality.”
Kate Allman is a journalist and lawyer who frequently writes for surfing magazines and refuses to be intimidated by men out in the surf.
She was also the only person from surfing media to reach out to Small about her experience.
“It kind of boggled my mind that no one else would have asked her about it,” Allman said.
“It made me very mad because I’m very much about equality in female sport … I kind of thought, ‘What can we do about this, legally?'”
Anti-discrimination law only applies to specific circumstances of employment or goods and services, meaning there’s no law that prevents unequal prize money in a one-off surfing competition.
The petition to the NSW Parliament is, therefore, a solution to mandate gender equality by law in local surfing clubs.
If the motion is passed in Parliament and legislated, it will enforce that state government grants, funding and tenders are only offered to sporting clubs that pledge equal opportunities and prize money for female surfers.
Small reached out to her Summer Hill MP Jo Haylen to get the petition rolling, which requires 20 thousand signatures before it can be debated in Parliament.
Ms Haylen said she was “shocked” like a lot of people to find that Small received a smaller cheque on the podium.
Government has a vital role to play, according to Ms Haylen, to “ensure that when handing out taxpayer money to any sport at any level, that there is equality of access when it comes to our girls and boys reaching the pinnacle in their chosen sport”.
A different approach
Not everyone agrees that a petition is the way to go, however.
Kate Moran is one of few female surf club presidents, running Manly Malibu board riders club.
While she doesn’t excuse North Curl Curl club’s unequal prize money, she say the call-out and petition could actually deter clubs from embracing social progress.
“I definitely think they should have had the equal prize money, but the way Lucy went about it, with all the publicity, I think was probably not the best way to go, because I know they are a local club and to run an event takes a lot of hard work,” Moran said.
She says “information is key” and surfers should obtain the details of prize money at competitions so that they are not confronted at the event.
As president of Manly Malibu, Moran says it’s fairer to approach the club beforehand and make suggestions before “all the organisation and hard work is done”.
She is sceptical about whether denying grants to clubs that don’t offer equal prize money is the right approach.
“It’s not very fair, since you still have to put the time and money into running the competition,” she said.
Instead, Moran says the answer is getting more women “out there and in (men’s) faces”.
“I think men are very closed off. I think they need to come around to the idea, and when they are more open [to it], it’ll draw more women into it,” she said.
“If they’re stuck in their ways, we have to help change them.”
‘Surfer girl’ image
For many, the blonde “surfer girl” image that Menczer confronted in the ’90s still prevails.
There was a rise in sponsors desiring a particular image of female surfers, excluding world champions like herself whose appearance didn’t fit the mark.
She recalled dying her hair blonde to mock the unfair beauty standards placed upon female surfers.
“There was a time when Serena Brooke started coming through and she was really hot, blonde hair,” Menczer said.
“And then, all of a sudden, she started raking in the sponsorship money. I was devastated”.
An established free surfer, documentary producer and writer, Hill has confronted similar beauty standards in her work with countless surf brands.
She talked about bikini photo shoot briefs “highlighting product and not necessarily what the product is doing”.
“In men’s surf marketing, it’s often more peripheral performance-focused than women’s surfing tends to be,” Hill said.
While Hill says the industry is starting to offer a more complex representation of female surfers, the market is yet to fully embrace these changes.
Sponsors continue to give the most money to men, with many surf brands are “secretive” about how they distribute their funding across gender.
“Having worked with each of the major brands now, when you realise what the breakdown is for the women’s versus men’s marketing budget, it’s exponential how much more men have to play with and how much more they’re paid,” Hill said.
From the inside
Sarah* (not her real name) was a women’s marketing manager for a surf apparel company from 2015 to the beginning of this year.
It was a role that didn’t even exist until she fought for it.
“There was only a marketing manager that covered both men and women’s,” she said.
She described how there was no proper budget, and that women’s marketing were simply given a bit of clothing for photo shoots, despite the fact it was about a 70-to-30 divide in female to male revenue for the brand.
Sarah said she was “kept in the dark”, and her questions frequently deferred in meetings, when enquiring about the budget allocated to the marketing and sponsorship for male surfers.
She said she had to “fight tooth and nail to get some of the girls sponsorship money to compete overseas”, only being allocated around $2,000 to sponsor a national longboard champion.
In comparison, many male surfers were being sponsored at a level that would cover their annual wage.
“If you ever uttered those words to the general manager, he would blow up, but if you ask any single female employee that worked there, they would say the same thing — an insane boys club.”
Not only it is an issue of sexism, but it’s also economically disadvantageous, according to Allman. She believes sponsors are “missing out” on the thriving market of female surfers.
Ancient roots inspire new ones
Ancient Polynesian Goddess Hi’iaka was a consummate surfer and, according to legend, knew that surfing was the “perfect medicine for a broken heart”.
Hill’s book describes one myth where Hi’iaka resuscitates chief Lohi’au through surfing:
“Hi’iaka stood upon the surface of the water with her skirt of pahapaha seaweed and mokila grass fluttering behind her … nothing could compare to the beauty of this surfing.”
The ancient roots of Polynesian surfing remain as concealed as its legendary origins of female surfing. Hill’s book aims to fill this gap.
“If we look back at the ancient myths and legends of Polynesia, we see them brimming with the prowess of female surfers,” Hill said.
Hill identifies as an eco-feminist — a term that she uses as a way of “connecting the dots between different kinds of pollution that need cleaning up, whether it’s the physical pollution on our beaches or the social pollution of sexism and racism”.
In her various travels to lesser-known surfing communities in Europe, the Seychelles and in Polynesia, Hill observed how female surfers were deeply connected to the land and caring for country.
“Being connected with the ocean came with a foundational sense of responsibility to take care of the places that were taking care of them essentially,” Hill said.
This knowledge of the ancient Polynesian prowess of female surfers, Hill says, serves as an historic “touchstone for modern surfing culture”.
Inclusion still an issue
Observing the history of surfing as one of inclusion can replace the “prevailing white, Western colonial approach”, where surfing culture has been one of “domination and separation”.
Many female surfers are calling for their surfing styles to be embraced rather than criticised and compared with men’s styles.
They say this is a vital step forward in making surfing culture a more inclusive space for women.
Surfing’s feminine side
Environmental activist and founder for Surfers for Climate Belinda Baggs said surfing was what allowed her to finally embrace her femininity and inspired her to give back to the ocean.
Baggs said she was always a “tomboy on the land”, and never comfortable enough to embrace her femininity.
It wasn’t until she learned to ride a heavy, single-fin longboard that she “actually felt feminine and proud of it”.
“I was able to feel that because of mother ocean and the connection I had to the waves,” Baggs said.
“So, it’s sort of natural that now I’ve put all my efforts into trying to protect the one thing that’s offered me so much by allowing me to be confident in my own skin.”
For Small and other female surfers, the petition for equality is about more than just prize money.
It’s about reaching a point where women’s surfing is appreciated for the compelling and ground-breaking sport that it is.