The lunch break.

That's how the women's pro-surfing heats were described by their male counterparts in 1988.

Usually held in the poorest of conditions, with the crappiest of one- to two-foot waves, the likes of future world champions Pam Burridge and Pauline Menzcer were sent out into the "slop" by event organisers.

As far as organisers were concerned, the crop of determined women were merely an add-on to the men's competition.

The thousands of spectators that lined California's Huntington Beach would spot the women entering the water, pick up their towels, turn their backs and head to nearby restaurants for lunch, before returning later in the afternoon for the men's heats.

A year later, at the same Op Pro surfing championship - the biggest event at the time on the surfing calendar - the women received a letter from tour organisers.

"Due to our budget and other factors we're going to eliminate the women's event this year,'' former pro-surfer Jorja Smith says. "But the bikini contest is staying."

The fierce pursuit of acceptance, inclusion and equal opportunity by female surfers during the 1980s and 1990s is told brilliantly in a documentary showing in cinemas called Girls Can't Surf.

The film explores the role of a small group of female surfers from Australia, South Africa and the US who paddled through a tidal wave of sexism, discrimination and homophobia to help create what is now a billion-dollar machine for the surf industry.

The documentary is compulsory viewing for every major sporting CEO and governing body in Australia, including the NRL and AFL.

The NCAA - college basketball - could learn something, too, given the gender controversy in the US over the vast difference in training facilities for the men compared with women.

Surfing, for so long a subculture for rebellious teens, has emerged from a time where women slept in their board bags because they couldn't attract any sponsorship, to now being a pioneer of world sport.

This great Australian pastime has already achieved what feels like could still be decades away for the major football codes in Australia to achieve.

From an industry dominated by men, with sponsors that only wanted to attach their brands to the best male surfers and magazines only wanting male surfers on their cover page, surfing has raised the bar for what it means to promote and increase participation of women in their sport.

Surfer Rochelle Ballard waxes her board at 1997 Cleanwater Surf Classic at Manly Beach./
Surfer Rochelle Ballard waxes her board at 1997 Cleanwater Surf Classic at Manly Beach./

The gap is all but closed after the World Surfing League announced three years ago equal pay for men and women pro-surfers. A 2019 study found women made up 37 per cent of the surfing population.

For years, the likes of world champion Wendy Botha and Australian tour pro Rochelle Ballard pleaded with tour organisers to let them surf at the same swell as the men - not down the end of the beach where the tide was running out or on the rocks, as was the case at the 1999 J-Bay Open in South Africa.

"We were held ransom by the sponsors of the events, saying the guys won't surf, there's people at the beach, we need to keep this event going, you girls are going to have to surf,'' seven-times world champion Layne Beachley says in the film.

Fed up, the women sat on the sand at Jeffreys Bay and refused to surf.

"We just wanted to be able to surf well and for people to see how well we surf, instead of watching us at crappy beach breaks, slopping around," Ballard said.

From that point, the women began showcasing their surfing at iconic locations including Tavarua in Fiji and Tahiti's Teahupo'o and Pipeline in Hawaii.

The turning point for women's surfing raises the question just how long will it be before the NRL showcases the women's State of Origin in front of 50,000 at Suncorp Stadium instead of at North Sydney Oval?

How long will it be before the NRL increases the number of NRL women's teams from the four?

And instead of expecting the likes of NSW Blues winger Tiana Penitani to quit her job just so she can chase her dream of playing rugby league, how long before sponsors and club's increase their financial support of women's rugby league?

Steph Gilmore, who will this year attempt to achieve what no woman has achieved by winning an eighth world surfing title, walked out of the cinema with tears in her eyes and steel in her heart after watching Girls Can't Surf.

The NRL and AFL have a long way to go in the gender journey
The NRL and AFL have a long way to go in the gender journey

 

"Without their resilience, the sport wouldn't be where it is today,'' Gilmore said.

"People always say there's not as many people who watch women's sport, but that's because women's sport has never been on at prime time.

"Put the women on at prime time when people are sitting down and then you will get the numbers. People can't be what they can't see.

"And as a sport (surfing), all we can do is lead by example: to have a governing body that's willing to make those changes for the better and they see the value in women and they have a vision for the sport.

"After seeing the film, it made me realise why there's no reason for me to stop.

"I've got so much more opportunity (than previous generations) and there's so much more to do.

"What is the next boundary we can break down?"

* Girls Can't Surf is in cinemas now courtesy of Finch productions.

Originally published as Sexism and abuse: The sport putting NRL to shame


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