About a week ago, the event organizers of the 2018 Ballito Pro Juniors posted a photo on their Facebook page of the men’s and women’s event winners, both standing on the podium holding their respective over-sized checks. In the photo, the men's/boy's 18-and-under winner Rio Waida brandishes a prize check for 8,000 South African Rand (roughly $578 USD). Next to him is the winner of the women's/girl's division Zoe Steyn, holding a check in her name worth half of what her male counterpart was receiving.
While the post was congratulatory in nature, the photo went viral, drawing huge amounts of criticism for being a blatant display of the gender pay gap in competitive surfing. "Did the girls surf a different ocean that was easier we don’t know about? This is pathetic," read one Facebook comment. "1920 phoned, they want their archaic gender biased ideals back [sad-face emoji]," read another.
The event organizers and sponsor, Billabong, were quick to realize the public relations issue they had on their hands–and they were equally quick to toss that hot potato squarely into the WSL’s hands.
"Billabong has always been actively invested in and supportive of women's surfing in South Africa," wrote Chad D Arcy, event license holder of the Billabong Junior Series in a statement. "We've proudly watched women's surfing grow over the years, in part thanks to the host of women's events we've run. For many years, we've sponsored a team of female athletes, nurturing their careers in surfing from an early age….In order for any professional surf event to be internationally accredited, it has to be sanctioned by the WSL. The WSL also determines the allocation of prize money and points for each event."
Reporters at Hack (a media group under the umbrella of the Australian Broadcast Company) reached out to Will Hayden-Smith, the WSL's Australia/Oceania Regional Manager, for an explanation of the apparent gender pay disparity.
“Men get double the prize money only because there are double the competitors,” Will Hayden-Smith told Hack. He went to explain that WSL's concept of equal-prize money–which involves a "prize-money-per-surfer" strategy. Here's how Hack explains it:
"Say there are 10 surfers competing for a total pot of $100 in prize money. That works out to a ratio of $10-per-surfer. The winner gets $50, and the runners up get the rest. Now say there is a female competition of five surfers. At the same ratio of $10-per-surfer, the total prize money is $50. The winner gets only $25. That was the case at the Ballito Pro, the WSL said. There were twice as many male surfers as female ones: 36 compared to 18. To keep the same money-per-surfer ratio for men and women, the prize money for the female winner had to be half as much as the men."
This isn't just the case for Juniors or 'QS events either. If you take a look at earnings of the winner the Corona Bali Protected 'CT event on the event page, you'll see the same weird pay algorithm at play. While event winner Italo Ferreira pocketed a whopping $100K for his win at Keramas, Lakey Peterson walked away with $65K–which is, if you're not good with numbers, 65 percent of what her male counterpart made. All because the playing field on the women's side is smaller than the men's. If you add up the prize purse on the men's side (~$607,800) and compare it to the women's ($303,900) and divide both sides by the number of surfers in each division (36 men and 18 women), you'll see that there was an equal money-per-surf ration of $16,883 and some change.
So yeah, there's equal money at some point in the WSL's equation, but is the output fair? Should a woman who wins an WSL-sanctioned event–be it on the 'CT, the Junior Series or the Big Wave Tour–be paid less than what the male winner earns because there are less female competitors?
Many people are saying “hell no”–some even setting up GoFund Me donation pages in response to the recent controversy. A woman who used to work for the Australian Post started a campaign to raise money that would go to Zoe Steyn, the young woman in the viral photo, “to make sure she feels just as worthy as her male peer.”
Another group in South Africa called Women Love Sport (WLS), with a logo purposefully similar to the WSL’s, also started a project to raise money for Ballito Pro female winners and to supplement women’s prize earnings in other local contests. “The Women Love Sport (WLS) campaign is a collaborative movement of ordinary people seeking to respond to the incident in which a young teenage girl won half the prize money of her male counterpart in a surfing competition in South Africa,” their website explains. “The question is: Can public outcry lead to positive change? We think it can.”