“What will happen to me if I do?” What it's like to speak up as a female athlete

The first thing we think of when we consider speaking out about gender discrimination in sport is, “what will happen to me if I do?” I think there comes a point that we need to ask ourselves, “what will happen to our sport and our communities if I don’t?”.

The way the sports industry is structured creates a culture of silence. Professional athletes are on sponsorship contracts with brands that can be torn up as soon as they even hint at controversy - on far too many occasions historically “controversy” has included things like being queer, standing on the side of human rights, or speaking out against sexual harassment or gender discrimination. 

In 2014, we saw South African (now Olympic qualified) surfer Sarah Baum lose her contract with Roxy after she came out, Australian professional surfer India Robinson lost her major sponsor as a teenager when she refused to comply with the sexualised body expectations of its advertising and surfer and model Alana Blanchard says she was dropped by her sponsor Rip Curl when she fell pregnant a few years ago. In 2020, we saw the International Olympic Committee outright ban political activism at the Tokyo Olympics and there are countless other athletes who have been buried in history when they have taken a stand. 

This structural problem doesn’t only affect athletes, but also commentators, photographers, referees and coaches. The nature of the employment is precarious, people usually work contract to contract, and the size of the industry associated with each sporting code is so small - doing anything that might give you a reputation for being “difficult” can spell the end of your career very quickly. At times it seems to be more important to be considered “easy to work with” than good at what you do. This is particularly true in surfing, where there is a prevailing cultural pressure to be “chill”, when inside you’re feeling anything but.  

Precarity causes myriad problems for women and people from diverse backgrounds across many different industries. If we’re forced to please a corporation in order to have a career, they have the power to take either your voice or your career away if they choose to. 

Making the decision to speak out therefore isn’t a small one. I spoke about unequal prize money two years ago and what has followed has been surprising. I have connected with women athletes from across different sporting codes, to join a coalition of women who share my frustration and who are ready to help and support at any given moment. It has also laid bare the people who truly subscribe to equality and justice. People who I never would have expected have stood alongside me and cheered for me from the sidelines. It’s shown me the true spirit of sport in the best way. 

But there are also challenging moments. 

Since I first called out the surf contest that awarded me less than half of the men’s division winner in 2021, I have campaigned for gender equality in sport, which has included exposing and calling out ongoing gender discrimination in surfing and other sports. I am in a position to do that now, so I use my voice with the knowledge that not every athlete is in the same position I am in because I am not reliant on being viewed favourably by certain people in order to have an income and pursue my dreams. 

But I do still feel fearful about being ostracised from my surfing community. What I have noticed is that often people within the industry are supportive of inequality being called out, as long as my focus is not on them or anyone close to them. Sometimes it feels like people are supportive of gender equality as a concept, but if it’s them I am calling out they’d prefer me to be quiet than to introspect or make a change. 

It’s also difficult being a person that is always difficult. It’s a constant oscillation between wanting to be accepted and respected and wanting the sport and the community to be better. Sometimes those two things feel mutually exclusive and sometimes I have to remind myself that no, not everybody hates me. 

But then, the community of women and girls who show up to my events, who email me and message me the kindest, most inspiring and encouraging words are like engine fuel. If I can reflect on them enough, I feel like there is no amount of flak that could derail me from my message and my mission. And going to watch women’s sport always helps. Being in a crowd of thousands of mums and teenage girls screaming the names of Ellie Carpenter or Kennedy Cherrington gives me so much hope. There were no sports stadiums full of mums and daughters when I was a teenager, which tells me it is worth it to keep going. 

As athletes we have a unique platform. This means we have an opportunity to bring about change and to speak up. So when we witness something that doesn’t seem right, the question I think we need to ask ourselves is “am I ready?”