The challenge for female surfers


The gap between male and female performance in competitive surfing is bigger than other sports, a new study shows.

The study, involving Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Exercise and Sport Science Research and Hurley Surfing Australia High Performance Centre, explored the gender differences in physical performance characteristics of elite surfers.

It compared the strength and paddling ability of 40 competitive male and female surfers with a World Surf League qualifying series ranking.

Using physical capacity rather than skill as an objective measurement, Dr Nimphius said the study was about determining how much more room the women had to grow.

“Olympic sports like swimming or track, they have closed the gap to about 10 per cent, so I guess we will worry about that 10 per cent later and try to figure out is that as close as we can get as far as physical performance goes between the genders?” she said.

“We haven’t even reached that level of equality from physical preparation and that’s what this study was about.”

The study showed men’s peak strength was about 19 per cent higher than women’s, relative to body mass.

With an additional 9-12 per cent difference in paddling velocity, the men exhibited higher lower and upper body strength than the women.

This places women at a further physical disadvantage because their lesser paddling ability means they catch less waves when practising.

Dr Nimphius said the difference in strength characteristics for surfers was greater than those reported between genders in other elite sports.

Professional surfing is a two-tiered system. Surfers compete on the Qualifying Series (QS), with the top performers at the end of the year qualifying for a place on the Championship Tour.

Local professional QS surfer Denver Young said it was more the perception and comparison within the competitive surfing culture which put women at an unnecessary disadvantage.

“Men and women should not be put in the same ballpark to be compared. It’s a different game and women have a different approach,” Ms Young said.

“And that’s when you get the compliment, ‘wow you’re good, you surf like a guy’.”

Dr Nimphius said she questioned whether the current approach towards grassroots competitive surfing was limiting what the top standard looks like for women.

“A big way to change the culture, the perception and the environment around the competitiveness is by having the boys and girls competing earlier together so that the girls have the opportunity to really go after it,” she said.

Surfing WA events manager Justin Majeks said for some junior contests, boys and girls competed together.

Justin Majeks at Surfing WA’s HQ. Photo: Hugh Forward.

“We have mixed divisions. We’ve always encouraged participation no matter what,” he said.

“Felicity Palmateer; growing up on these beaches here she had to compete against the boys because there just weren’t that many girls to compete against.

“I remember a state title maybe six or seven years ago where Felicity competed in the under-21 event and beat a few guys and that was a bit of a humbling thing.”

Ms Young spoke of the troubles female surfers had in getting financial backing from sponsors.

“I feel like [competing in the qualifying series] is not feasible unless I want to totally sexualise myself and sell bikini photos to sponsors.

“It’s not feasible to follow my dream and to qualify for the World Tour unless I want to back myself to almost get no return.”

Of the main events on the 2017 qualifying series, the men have 15 events with corporate sponsorship whereas the women only have six.

World Surf League Australia and Oceania regional manager Will Hayden-Smith said: “In the qualifying series, which is what you compete in to earn a spot on the Championship Tour, the prize money is less for the women.”

Surfers ride the same wave at South Trigg beach. Photo: Hugh Forward.

He said men paid a higher entry fee to get into the QS events because traditionally males get paid more sponsorship money.

Mr Hayden-Smith said the WSL was doing a five-year feasibility study to see whether increasing the entry fees and prize money for women’s QS events could potentially result in losing major sponsors and contestants.

“I would love to see the women getting paid the same, if not more because I think at the moment the women’s tour is increasing in performance levels much faster than the men’s,” he said.

Dr Nimphius said if the industry didn’t start promoting and increasing the visibility of the women’s athletes, young girls would have no reason to be more aggressive, more successful, to train harder and to continue through.

“Someone has to bite the bullet for a little bit and sometimes to push progress you need to push opportunity,” she said.