I didn’t plan on anything bigger when I took the microphone in front of a small crowd by the beach in Sydney a few months ago. I was just tired. Tired of my efforts and the efforts of the women surf community not being recognised as equal to the efforts of men. Tired, and mad.
I had just won the women’s division of a community club surf contest. It was a sunny afternoon at the end of April and the waves weren’t great. I’d looked at the novelty cheques on the table before the presentation started to confirm my suspicions that the prize money wasn’t equal. The winner of the men’s was set to receive $4,000 and the winner of the women’s $1,500. If they ask me to speak, I thought, I’m going to have to call them out.
So that’s what I did. I couldn’t really plan what to say. The words came out, my hand on the microphone shook and I didn’t really know where to look. The sun was in my eyes. “I finally won something,” I started. Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it. “Thank you to the sponsors for the money they put into the event but it’s a bittersweet victory knowing that my surfing is worth less than half of the men’s prize money.” Ok, I said it.
I was scared. I had taken a cheque for $1,500 dollars and told the person who’d given it to me that it wasn’t enough. I was scared because the culture of the surf industry, since it’s dawn, has told women that we don’t belong. It’s a culture of hyper-masculinity from line-ups in the water, sexist sponsorship deals and advertising, to industry jobs and media that repeatedly tell women that men are the real surfers and women are just a footnote. It’s this culture that gives small community clubs like the one that organised the event I’d just won, permission to give women less, because they deserve less.
The media frenzy that followed told me that the world is ready for change. I have never experienced anything like I did for the weeks that followed – the video of my call out speech went viral and I appeared on every major news channel in Australia. I was walking down the main road near my house one day a while after and I heard a voice yell: “congratulations on the surfing.” Countless people asked me over the weeks that followed, “are you that surfer from that video?” It was surreal, if I am being completely honest. Even writing this now, the memory feels like it might not even be mine.
During my time doing countless interviews and talking to people non-stop about the issue, I talked about meaningful change. That this event was a symptom of a wider system of discrimination against women athletes and we need to work toward meaningful, widespread change. So, when I finally had a moment to reflect, the two things I thought about were that a) I’m still mad, and b) what am I going to do now?
The media response to my equal prize-money call-out led to the governing body of surfing to update their rulebook to include equal prize-money as a requirement for affiliated clubs and organisations. This however, I realised, is not comprehensive enough. It’s not binding. Organisations not affiliated can still do whatever they like. It does nothing to shift cultural attitudes. And as easily as the rulebook could be updated to include this, in the future it can be changed again. So, I started to think about how to change the state law.
Now, as this will be published four months later, along with a selection of athletes, surfers and lawyers (and surfing lawyers) I am launching a campaign called Equal Pay for Equal Play that is pushing for changes to the way NSW government funding is allocated to sporting clubs and organisations to include gender equity as a condition of eligibility for grants and tenders. Please look out for our soon to be live petition.
So, on that sunny afternoon, as I held the mic in my shaking hand, I had no idea that my decision to speak up would cartwheel me into the position I am in now. But I realise wholeheartedly, that by speaking up I hope I can both encourage others to take a deep breath and speak up in the face of injustice as well as let anyone who is reinforcing the gender hierarchy of old know, that their time has come.
We women are strong, we’re equal, and we’re here for change.