WTF Does “Equal by Nature” Mean?

Title Image: WSL / Ed Sloane

In 2009, Courtney Conlogue won a surf competition in California.  The men’s winner won $100,000.  Courtney won $4,500, which the judges later upped to $10,000 because of her performance.  Same waves, same day, same #1 trophy, same dedication to the sport and to winning (if not more… Conlogue’s competitive drive is a fierce, beautiful, scary thing to behold).

In September 2018, the WSL announced that starting next year, 10 years after Conlogue won 10% of her male counterpart’s prize, all WSL-controlled surf events will pay equal prize money to male and female winners. The WSL lauded itself as the first US-based sports league to offer equal prize money, attributed the decision to its “commitment to gender equality,” and blasted social media with the slogan “Equal by Nature.” 


My reaction?  “Great!!!” And, “About f&(*#ng time!”  My facebook bubble was obviously over the moon. But certain publications and commentators barely bothered to disguise their disgust (or didn't bother at all).  I also know a number of guys who are grumbling about the decision.

Interestingly, a (feminist) friend of mine was annoyed by the WSL decision, partly because he saw it as a token gesture.  He thinks the real push should come from sponsors, the real money behind professional surfing.

In our discussion, we touched on all the main arguments commonly heard against equal pay in professional surfing:

  1. The men surf better.

  2. The men draw most of the viewers, and therefore the money.

  3. The men’s comps are more exciting because the surfing is more progressive and in better/gnarlier waves.

  4. Gnarlier waves ==> higher risk of injury.

  5. The men’s tour includes 34 men, so they have to beat out more than twice as many other competitors to get the prize money. So, as some love to argue, per capita, the women are actually getting paid more.

At first, these seem like reasonable arguments worth entertaining on their merits.  But, actually, they’re not.  Going toe-to-toe in a debate about those 5 points totally ignores the context that made the WSL’s decision necessary in the first place.  It also validates a male-centric worldview founded upon deeply rooted, often subconscious, assumptions that mislead us into a supposedly logical and natural conclusion.  Namely, that those 5 factors mean the men “deserve” more pay… they’ve somehow earned it. 

The problem with that logic is: at this time, due to various historical and current realities, there is no way that the women could “earn” the right to the same prize money as the men.

  • Girl groms historically have not had anywhere near the same surfing opportunities (financial, societal, familial support, competitions, access to waves, coaching, appropriate equipment) as boy groms. The playing field is never going to be equal when John John Florence (the highest earning male pro) and the other highest-paid males each make more than 3 times what Steph Gilmore (the highest earning female pro surfer) gets from her sponsors.  My friend’s very valid issue with the WSL decision was that financial and other support needs to be equal from the moment little girls aspire to become pro surfers, as it’s too late to only claim equality once women manage to get into the highest levels of competition.  But even as opportunities increase for the girls, they are also increasing for the boys.  How are the girls going to close that gap? 
  • Role models matter in sports, and groms are inspired by the surfers they see on billboards, and in commercials, surf movies and competitions. Boy groms are advantaged because they also feel a kinship of possibility.  As 99% of those role models have genitalia, haircuts, bodies that match theirs, landing that air or going pro seems a lot less far-fetched.
  • When you don’t give girls opportunities, support, or role models, you’re going to get fewer female surfers. Basic statistics dictate that you’ll also get less talent, style, variety, and progression within the even smaller pool of professional female surfers.  Most surf comp viewers are surfers.  Ergo, most viewers are men who would rather watch surfers whose surfing they can relate and aspire to = the male pros.  So, how are the women supposed to “earn” more viewers?
  • If surfing in gnarly waves or dreamy conditions on the world’s best waves draw viewership, how are the women athletes going to “earn” more viewers when they do not get to compete in those conditions? The WSL is doing better: the women’s tour stops mostly mimic the men’s in 2019, and they have been sending the women out in slightly better conditions at events… but we still have a long way to go.

So, if women have to “earn” the right to get paid the same, but are handicapped from doing so for the above reasons, does that mean they’re not inherently equal?  Or is it that they’re equal but don’t deserve the same pay until they catch up?  Which begs the fundamental question: WTF does “Equal by Nature” mean??

Different iterations of this debate come up every single time the rights of a certain group are newly recognized, whether it be a gay man’s right to marry a man, a woman’s right to vote, or a black child’s right to go the same school as a white child.  For me, the key phrase is newly recognized.  As in, these rights were not newly created or granted.  Instead, these rights had been denied to that group until society finally recognized the omission as an injustice that needed correction.

Yeah, “Equal by Nature” sounds great.  But the reality is more like: “Equal by Nature, Unequal Due to Historically Disparate Treatment.” 

And denying rights for generations has consequences.  You can’t correct centuries of curtailed opportunities, disenfranchisement, and discrimination overnight by merely allowing women to vote, black kids to go to the same schools, or women to earn the same amount of money as men (in any arena).  Yeah, “Equal by Nature” sounds great.  But the reality is more like: “Equal by Nature, Unequal Due to Historically Disparate Treatment.” 

So, equality can’t really exist unless you create corollary systems to ameliorate the consequences of historical discrimination and level the playing field (even if artificially, at first).  Examples include requiring equal investment into women and men’s sports.  These are necessary attempts to make up for historical stigma, and the time, knowledge, skill, and financial opportunities these groups unfairly missed out on before we, as a society, got our collective shit together and realized other humans should be included in that cozy circle of equal treatment and opportunity.

The exact same principle applies to the WSL’s commitment to equal pay, regardless of whether those 5 arguments against it are true.  Equal pay might seem unfair to the male surfers if considered out of context and just in this snapshot of time.  It is, however, necessary if the WSL is going to pay more than lip service to its “commitment to gender equality.”  The issues surrounding audience, progression, and sponsorship in women’s surfing will not magically be solved by equal pay.  However, it is the best the WSL can do, within its sphere of influence, to literally put its money where its mouth is and begin to right a historical wrong.

And for a surfer like Courtney Conlogue, and all the little Courtney wannabes, it’s about damn time.

This story was originally published, in an edited form, on LuEx Magazine: