Setting the Standard


Stephanie Gilmore
Today, I feel proud to be a surfer.

Well, I’m always proud to be a surfer. But today is a little different. Today, something pretty special is happening.

Today, the World Surf League is announcing that it will award equal prize money to male and female surfers for every WSL event in the 2019 season and beyond, making it the first and only U.S.–based sport league to achieve pay equality.

To explain how huge this is, I have to tell you a little about myself — and what it’s like to be a female in this sport.

When I was a young girl growing up in New South Wales, Australia, I had posters all over my bedroom walls of my favorite surfers — mostly male surfers, because those were the only posters available. There were plenty of female surfers I looked up to. I really appreciated Lisa Andersen, Chelsea Hedges and Sofía Mulánovich, and I loved Megan Abubo, from Hawaii, and, of course, Layne Beachley, from Australia. Instead of posters, I would cut their pictures out of magazines and put those on my wall. But even those weren’t easy to find.

When you’re a young girl, you don’t think of what that discrepancy means. You don’t think about why you can’t find posters of female surfers. You just put up your Kelly Slater posters and continue dreaming about winning a world championship.

At least that’s what I did.


I didn’t ever really think about the difference between how male and female surfers were treated until after the 2010 season. I had just won my fourth world championship in only my fourth year as a professional — something I’m proud to say has never been done by any other surfer, male or female. I was in discussion with some of my potential sponsors — it was like they didn’t appreciate the fact that I had just won four straight world championships. My achievements were just as good, if not far better, than those of many of my male counterparts. But it was a struggle even to get companies that had shared in my successes to put up the same kind of cash they were giving to the men.

I just remember thinking, Why is my world title worth less than theirs?

I was fortunate that my sister, Whitney, was my manager. She really fought hard to make sure I got what we thought my accomplishments merited. And with a nod to Craig Stevenson and Pierre Agnes, eventually, we did. But it was real struggle to prove my worth, even though my achievements were there. The whole process was really eye-opening for me.

There were definitely moments when the difference between male and female surfers was noticeable. There was one year when the women only had five or six events, less than half of what the men had, and we were generally pushed aside. We didn’t have priority choice of good waves. The men got the best waves, and we would have to stay off to the side.

We were basically just a sideshow.

It’s been much different in recent years, especially since the Ziff family acquired the WSL in 2013. Their commitment to grow the sport has been incredible, and equal prize money for male and female surfers is a huge step. I don’t think the depth of talent is there for the same amount of women to be competing on the tour as men. I think a lot of that is because there hasn’t been enough movement to grow the sport among young girls like there has been among young boys. And that’s another part of the WSL’s plan for the future: In addition to providing financial support at the highest level, they’re trying to cultivate better youth programs for young girls to ensure that the next generations of female surfers are equipped to thrive.

And I think the increased financial support for women at the highest level of competition will be a great incentive for talented young girls to pursue professional surfing.

Like I said, today is a very proud day for me. I’m proud to be a surfer. Proud to be a female surfer. I feel like the momentum in our society to have this conversation is incredible — because it’s not just in surfing, or in sport, that women are fighting for equality in the workplace. It’s everywhere. And for this announcement to come now, and for it to happen during my career — and then to have the support of so many male surfers, including Kelly Slater — is unbelievable.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world.”

I truly believe that.

And I really hope this decision can be the start of a much bigger movement not only in sport, and eventually, in society.

Kelly Slater
I would like to start by echoing everything Stephanie said. This is a proud day for sports in general.

It’s amazing to see how women’s surfing has grown. I mean, today it’s rare to paddle out and not see multiple women out there surfing. I definitely remember a time when you just didn’t see girls and women out in the surf.

I remember being in France back in the early ’90s, when there was a woman who decided to surf in a men’s expression session, which was unheard of at the time because they were usually when guys would go for big maneuvers — big aerials or something — and all the other guys would sit around and watch to see who could do what.

And this woman … she went out there and blew everybody away. The top surfing writer at the time — an ex-pro named Derek Hynd — was there, and he jumped out of his seat. He was like, “I can’t believe how good she is!”

That woman was Layne Beachley, one of the female surfing legends Stephanie grew up idolizing. Layne later went on to win seven world championships. Today, Stephanie is right behind her with six world championships of her own.

To watch what these women do … I mean, what they are able to do out there is every bit as difficult and as dangerous and as impressive as what any man on the tour does.

And starting now, they’re going to receive equal prize money for it.

This is an important moment for surfing, but it’s also deeply personal for me because I was raised by a single mom. My dad was out of the house by the time I was 10 or 11, and my mom basically raised three boys on a single paycheck. She was a firefighter — the only female firefighter in our county. This was in the late ’70s, early ’80s, so it was a different time. She faced a lot of equality issues at her job. And I still think about my mom and what it must have been like for her to work as hard as she did to do the exact same job as the men next to her, and then go home and raise three young men of her own — and to be underpaid and underappreciated for it.

My mom and women like her deserved better then, and our women — all women — deserve better. Now.

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

I’ve seen some of the things Stephanie is talking about when it comes to women in surfing not getting the same benefits or the same treatment as men. On our world tour there are more men than women, and the men do generally get first choice when it comes to conditions.

I’ve seen it backfire before, when the men pick what they think are the better conditions but then the women end up getting something better. Which is … karma. It’s pretty funny when that happens.

And I think equal prize money is the first step toward real equality in the water. I think that — between that and the WSL’s efforts to develop young male and female surfers — the future of our sport is bright.

And I also think that this decision by the WSL is a message to society — that equal prize money should be the standard. It should be the norm.

Today is a proud day, but I’m excited to see how proud we will be in five years, or 10 years, or 20 years. Because I think people will be able to point back to this moment — back to this announcement — as the point when things started to change. And then we’ll really be proud, knowing that we played our part and helped change not only our sport, but also our society, for the better.