Bringing gender equity to surfing at all levels is a major challenge. Inclusive community surf groups are doing the work at a local level.
“I had been surfing at Manly Beach for 12 years … encountering years of threat, challenge and hostility by the men who graced the lineup with the steadfast belief that women didn’t have the right to be in the water,” wrote Layne Beachley, seven-time surfing world champion in a 2017 op-ed for The Guardian. Despite having origins in Polynesian and Hawaiian culture, where surfing was a relatively egalitarian sport, the development of professional surfing from the 1970s to recent years has marginalized women.
For decades, professional surfing competitions have placed a higher value on men’s surfing categories over women’s. At the Association of Surfing Professionals’ 1977 World Tour, 24 men competed for a grand prize of $16,000, whereas 12 women competed for one-fifth as much ($1,600). It took as long as 2019 for the World Surf League to decide that female competitors should be paid equally to their male counterparts.
“If we look back in time, surfing seemed like a male-dominated sport,” says Kylie Elizabeth Martin, founder of Surf Sisters Byron Bay. “Some of the older, classic surf films like Point Break, The Endless Summer, and In Gods Hands, were predominantly centered around male surfers and their stories. The media, surf magazines and the news capitalized on what the men were doing and female surfers were less of a focus.”
Even with the recent WSL policy changes, worldwide surf lineups are still generally male-dominated, which can be an intimidating experience for women paddling out on their own. According to a stat report by SurferToday, the International Surfing Association (ISA) estimates that women account for only 19 percent of the 25 million people in the surfing community, worldwide.
“It’s scary to paddle out into a lineup full of men,” says Candace Stalder, board member of Surfing Moms. “Especially when they’re aggressive, rude, or just downright mean and unwelcoming. We’re still told we’re lesser than men and don’t deserve the same treatment, recognition or exposure.”
But to assume that girls and women aren’t keen on surfing would be wrong. There are plenty of factors preventing gender diversity in the water, starting with competitive atmospheres in male-dominated lineups and continuing through social pressures in different parts of the world with an archaic view of women joining in with adventurous watersports.
A collection of local, inclusive surf communities are working to make the sport accessible for everyone
“I’m inspired by female surfers who have overcome obstacles,” adds Kylie Elizabeth Martin. “Bethany Hamilton, and Pauline Menczer for her humility. She overcame so many challenges during a surf era that did not place value on female surfers.”
Indeed, Hamilton is arguably one of the most famous female surfers of all time — not only for her surfing prowess — but for her resilience in surviving an attack by a 14-foot tiger shark that resulted in her losing her left arm. Hamilton managed to return to professional surfing, learning to paddle out using just the right arm, and her 2004 autobiography was subsequently turned into the blockbuster film Soul Surfer.
On the other end of the spectrum, Menczer, the ‘forgotten surfing champion,’ was the recent focus of a documentary entitled Girls Can’t Surf, rising to fame in the 1980s and 90s, going on to win the Association of Surfing Pros’ women’s world championship in 1993. For her hard work, she received no sponsorships, no prize money, and a broken trophy.
Menczar has gone on to work as a bus driver in her later years and has only recently been the recipient of a GoFundMe payout to raise the prize money that she earned but never received in 1993. “I just feel the love,” Menczer told the Sydney Morning Herald. “The money is a bonus but it’s the love and feeling of connection again.”
“We do not own the ocean, we are merely guests enjoying what it has to offer us,” adds Stalder. “The least we can do is treat everyone with kindness. That’s just like life outside of the water too. If we could all be a little nicer, understanding and accepting then maybe the world wouldn’t feel so harsh.” Surfing Moms organizes meet-ups along the California coastline and in Hawaii and has a sister group in Australia, Surfing Mums.
Surfing is just as much about skill as it is about power. No matter your age, body type, or gender, as long as you can develop the ability to read a wave, paddle towards it, then maneuver your board once you’ve popped up, then you can surf. Strength and stamina are two ways that you can physically develop as a surfer. But aside from benefitting participants physically, emerging studies have also shown that surfing can help people improve their mental well-being, including having improved social skills, confidence and self-efficacy.
“When you make the most of the wave you’re on, you’re making the most of mother nature,” says Simone Montie, founder of WomeNZ Surferz, based in New Zealand. “The stoke from a good wave can stay in your mind and motivate you for years to come. Being outdoors and in the water catching waves is the ultimate for my mental and physical well-being so not doing it, I can notice a big difference.”
WomeNZ Surferz is a safe place for women to come together to enhance their surf experiences and is the first and only national women’s surf group in New Zealand.
“Too often we see competent women sitting far away from the take-off zone, or being paddled around by guys who think they can’t or won’t catch the waves, says Melissa Morrison, co-founder of Bitches N Barrels, a non-profit organization based in Vancouver Island, Canada, dedicated to getting more women out surfing. “It’s easy to let imposter syndrome creep in when the broadcasted surfing culture seems to celebrate exclusion.”
So, how do we encourage more women to grab a board and jump in the sea? The answer may come in the form of local inclusive surf groups that create a safe space to develop a diversified surf lineup worldwide.
“We often hear stories of women who went surfing and were pulled into situations where they felt scared and unsafe,” adds Morrison. “We are trying to carve out a space for women to push themselves and progress at their own pace. To push beyond their comfort zone, but to do so in a safe and supportive way where they’re surrounded by women who are cheering and laughing alongside them.”
“Surfing where we live isn’t particularly beginner-friendly. The drives are long and the breaks are rocky, so it’s a tough spot to develop skills and confidence. Our organization is focused on making surfing accessible. It’s a passion project dedicated to building community. We aren’t just trying to give women an opportunity to cross surfing off their bucket list. Instead, we are trying to provide the tools and opportunities for women to experience surfing and integrate themselves into the surfing community in a safe and supportive way.”
Bitches N Barrels organizes community-building events and affordable surf trips and are committed to creating an inclusive, safe environment for women to learn and progress in the water.
“I think we need to just keep creating more opportunities to provide empowerment to women so they feel confident in themselves to get out,” says Monica Wach, co-founder of the Surf Witches, based on the Gold Coast, Australia. “We have some amazing women in the surf industry who are positive examples of how women can hold their own in the surf. Women like Bethany Hamilton and Stephanie Gilmore, each in their own way, inspire girls and women to get out in the water.”
“We found that we preferred going out with a few friends who could have our back and cheer us on in the water, plus it was much more fun to have women to laugh with when we got trashed in the waves. It was motivating having someone to go out with who would only provide positive vibes and encouragement, making learning a challenging sport more attainable and less intimidating. There is a lot to gain when women start empowering one another. We live in a world that sometimes restricts us to what we are expected to be and we can be placed in competition with one another instead of positions of mutual empowerment. It has made us really proud to watch the friendships growing within the group and the way all of our women encourage each other with endless enthusiasm and positivity. An added bonus is seeing the girls’ surfing improve over the past few years.”
“Women change the dynamic in the water,” adds Ella Louise Sullivan, founder of Saunton Surf Sisters, a women’s surf group based in North Devon, UK. “It’s a lot calmer and more nurturing – and can even be more fun. Meeting up in groups can be daunting at times because you don’t know how approachable everyone will be. But everyone in our group is from all different walks of life, so it’s really fun to be a part of.”
Ella’s advice for aspiring surfers keen to join their local surf group is to “try and make a connection with the person next to you in the lineup. These connections gradually build up and then a community is made. And that’s what we are put on this planet to do. To build connections and a sense of community. These things take time and hopefully, in the next couple of years, we will have a vibrant community of women, who surf and support one another.”
As well as surf meet-ups, Saunton Surf Sisters also organizes yoga and skate events and has an online community of over 300 women. As the group continues to grow, so do the opportunities to expand. “We could help fundraise to get girls who haven’t had the chance to surf before out for lessons and purchase foamies for them,” muses Ella. “I’d love to help empower the next generation of female surfers to get out there with us!”
Surfing as part of a group can not only be a great way to build a sense of community, it can also be an empowering way to divert young women into a positive lifestyle during their formative years. That’s what happened for S’nenhlanhla Makhubu, professional surfer and ambassador for Girls Surf Too, a program run by Surfers Not Street Children, which targets girls living at risk of street connectedness, based in Durban South Africa.
“When I was nine, S’lindile Ngema (the Girls Surf Too program coordinator), approached my dad, who’s a lifeguard, and invited me to learn how to surf. I was already a competitive swimmer, and I was good at it. But surfing was something completely next level for me.”
Makhubu has since gone on to represent South Africa in the Surfing Junior World Championships and provides ambassadorship to the Surfers Not Street Children as an inspiration for other young black girls who aspire to surf.
“Whenever I’m down, I always look forward to surfing because it feels so free,” adds Makhbu. “I’ve made so many new friends through surfing, and I’ve had so many opportunities. Through Girls Surf Too, we want to give the same opportunities for more girls like me to become a part of our surf family and show them that there’s another way to live without drugs and violence. Surfing as part of our sisterhood is both motivating and inspiring.”
At Girls Surf Too, surfing serves as the first step towards breaking down the barriers needed to start the process of healing, through education, mentorship and support. The program operates daily, has an emergency care facility for girls in desperate need and facilitates surfing and other beach activities, whilst building trusting relationships with social workers as their needs are assessed and they are provided with protection and empowerment.
The tides have begun to change as more local women’s surf groups are popping up at the best surf breaks around the world. These groups create a supportive environment for women to empower themselves with new skills, new friends and new opportunities.
“As our girls get better, you can notice a change in the lineup,” adds Makhbu. “We get more respect now, and we get more waves. It’s exciting!”