29 June, 2018 29 June, 2018

Controversial Photo Raises Pay Gap Question

A photo announcing the winners of the Under 18 division at last weekend’s Billabong Junior Series contest in Ballito has caused wide-spread controversy this week, and raised the question; why is there not equality in prize money in pro surfing when it comes to the Men’s and Women’s division?

“They do the same work, so deserve the same pay,” was the common response to the original Facebook post, which has been shared almost 7000 times and caught the attention of major media agencies around the world.

Other responses suggested, “archaic discrimination” was taking place, and Billabong, the title sponsor of the event, were accused of showing “blatant inequality” in the distribution of the prize money – some even suggesting that Billabong offer 50% discount on their women’s range too.

Billabong, however, don’t have a say in how the prize money gets divvied up amongst competitors, instead it’s the World Surf League, professional surfing’s governing body, who decide on and distribute winnings.

Chad D’Arcy, event license holder of the Billabong Junior Series confirmed this, and more in an official response to the storm the photo had swirled up:

“Billabong has always been actively invested in and supportive of women’s surfing in South Africa. 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. As a brand, Billabong is, in every way, committed to gender equality and will continue to support the growth and progression of women’s surfing in South Africa.”

Zoe Steyn klaps the lip in Ballito on her way to victory. ©WSL / Cestari

At the Ballito Junior Pro competitors of both gender surfed the same waves, on the same days, with the female contingent surfing one less round and the overall winner, Zoe Steyn, banking half the bucks. Now if you were to come to a conclusion on this fact only, you could easily question the pay difference and frame it as unequal.

But the World Surf League have stated that the prize money is shared equally among male and female competitors based on how many athletes compete, and Will Hayden-Smith, the WSL’s Australian Regional Manager, claimed this in the WSL’s response to the uproar.

“Men get double the prize money only because there are double the competitors”. Hayden-Smith concluded after explaining the equation the WSL uses to make sure everyone gets an equal share of the prize money pool.

The WSL’s equation goes like this: let’s say there are 10 surfers competing for a total pot of R10,000 in prize money. That works out to a ratio of R1000-per-surfer. The winner gets R5000, and the runners-up get the rest.

Then say there is a female competition of five surfers. At the same ratio of R1000-per-surfer, the total prize money is R5000. The winner gets R2500.

For the Billabong Junior Series at Ballito, there were 36 competitors in the Under 18 Men’s division and half of that (18) in the Under 18 Women’s division, which brings us to Hayden Smith’s concluding statement.

Whether the WSL’s formula is fair or not is up for debate, and it’s good that the subject has been brought up. The more society discuss issues like the gender pay gap, and gender equality in general, the sooner we can reach a point where we can concentrate on sorting out many of the other contentious issues affecting our barrelling blue planet.

Reigning back-to-back WSL Women’s World Champion, Tyler Wright, putting on a show at P-Pass. ©Rip Curl / Grambeau

A fair formula or not, many of us are aware that money is what makes this world go around despite our protests, and perhaps the pay gap is indicative of the WSL’s viewership – the commodity with which they attract advertisers and supporting sponsors – and the only certain way we’ll see prize money being shared equally, is when the viewership increases. The good news is that it is due to the rising popularity of Women’s surfing. A snowball effect would see equality happening sooner rather than later.

This raises some questions: why on the WCT, do women earn 60% as much as the men? Is there a 10% premium on WCT viewerships?. And beyond the equal prize money conversation, would women’s surfing be better served if the non-elimination rounds were mixed. Giving women the chance to hone their skills in fair competition against the men.

To conclude though, let’s bring it back home and take a look at the most important aspect of this particular issue; Zoe Steyn. A young woman who has been on fire this year as we followed her City Surf Series journey. A talented surfer who has stuck with it despite adversity – when she was hit by a shark in a frightening encounter at Nahoon Reef last year. To say that she earned her prize money is without question. But the question remains, when will it be fair pay?

Zoe and her shark-bitten board after her scary incident at Nahoon.


  1. Name Rhyan
    30 June, 2018 at 12:10 pm · Reply

    This makes loads of sense, would be good to see the woman up against the men. I run against woman and they strong AF! Beware men the woman are gonna kick our ASSs very soon, well as soon as they can compete against the men!

  2. Sean
    1 July, 2018 at 6:18 am · Reply

    Using the WSL formula simply reinforces the status quo. If WSL is committed to gender equality, they need to make the prize-money equal. Who cares if the number of contestants is not the same. There is one winner in the end anyway, and having equal pay shows a genuine sign of commitment.

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