Wiped Out: Female surfers call out gender bias in the professional pipeline

In the surfing world, sponsorships are everything. Brands like Hurley, Quiksilver, Dakine and RipCurl are just some of the big-name brands that adorn athletes with surfboards, gear, clothing and film deals. But when it comes to endorsement deals for male and female surfers, the standards aren’t the same.

“A lot of the contracts for woman and girls – it’s not just a surfing contract. It’s a modeling contract as well,” said Jordyn Romero, a member of Chapman’s surf club.

Surf Sponsors are what keep surfers going, and at the professional level they are an athlete’s main source of income. But female surfers aren’t treated equally, and Chapman’s surfers are taking notice.

Romero, a junior news and documentary major, called the industry “objectifying.”

“You have to sell the brand with your looks,” she said. “It’s a big part of the surfing culture.”

Last year, surfing’s biggest name and Hurley poster child John John Florence made about $5.7 million, according to Stab’s 2017 “Rich List.” Surfing’s highest female earner, Stephanie Gilmore, made just shy of $1.7 million. Pro surfer Shelby Detmers has been surfing for 12 years, and though she is endorsed by numerous brands like Xcel Wetsuits and Sticky Bumps Surf Wax, she acknowledges that getting sponsored is still no easy task.

Detmers surfing in a competition | Photo courtesy SHELBY DETMERS

“Most of the time sponsors are acquired through knowing someone who knows someone, either through a personal manager, or somehow getting a team manager email and emailing them yourself,” said Shelby Detmers, a professional surfer.

To attract sponsors, surfers typically make highlight reels of themselves surfing, said Matty Roselli, a sophomore finance major and member of Chapman’s surf club. But when it comes to female surfers, he said some focus too much on the modeling aspect in hopes of getting a deal.

“(Female surfers) miss out on the real reason they are looking to get sponsored in the first place, and that’s to surf at a competitive level,” Reselli said.

Helene Drean, a junior communication studies major and aspiring pro surfer, believes brands perpetuate the standard that women surfers need to portray themselves as models and not athletes.  

Junior Helene Drean lives and surfs in Laguna Beach | Photo courtesy HELENE DREAN

“They take models who never even surfed once in their life or done anything athletic, and it’s those girls who represent us,” Drean said. “They mostly represent surfing women as a sex objects, (not) athletes. For male surfers it’s their skills that matter…the fact (they) have a six pack or not doesn’t matter.”

Some of the highest ranked female surfers like Keala Kennelly, Silvana Lima, and Carissa Moore have talked about sponsorship bias.

In 2016, Keala Kennelly was the first woman to win World Surf League’s Pure Scot Barrel Award in the Big Wave category, the first time a woman had ever won the award.

Lima is a two time runner up for the World Surf League’s championship title and named the best female surfer in Brazil eight times. She told BBC News that she was unable to secure a sponsor for the first 13 years of her career and funded her passion through breeding and selling dogs.

“I’m not a babe. I’m a professional surfer,” she said. “The surf-wear brands, when it comes to women, they want both models and surfers.”

“Male athletes just have to surf really well,” Kennelly told the Huffington Post in 2016. “Female athletes have to surf well, be really pretty, be really feminine and be between a certain age. We have a lot more requirements.”

The problem isn’t one exclusive to individual athletes, as lack of financing for events is common in the women’s circuit. Carissa Moore has won three world titles, and told The Inertia if it weren’t for sponsors like Target stepping up to sponsor events, many of the women’s competitions wouldn’t be possible.  

Sponsors can pay for gear, travel, hotels, food and drink, competition fees, and pay surfers directly, according to SurferToday. But female surfers aren’t just missing out on sponsor perks, they are also under paid in competitions. The UK Pro Surf Tour paid their men’s open winner $1,500 and the female’s open winner $370. In 2015 the overall individual event prize for men was $525,000, but  the women’s total prize was $262,500.

Drean moved to California from France so that she could surf everyday | Photo courtesy HELENE DREAN

“I definitely think it’s unfair. You don’t see it much as a national level, but in the pro level you see it. I mean we’re in 2018. How would you react if you see a men at your job who has the same position has you getting pay more than you? (You) probably would say it’s sexist and not right,” Drean said.

Surf may still be male dominated, but females continuing the fight to make surfing just about surfing. Detmers believes there is hope for a new surfing world to take over.

“I think that the surf world is changing and it is becoming more about how you perform in contest and how you surf. But there is also two types of surfers, the ones that are more in to modeling and the ones who are more in to competitions. It just depends on which path you want to go down.”

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