Women surfers scored a big win in California last year when an obscure government commission decided it would only lease a public beach to the Mavericks global surf competition if men and women were awarded the same amount of prize money. Experts said the precedent could compel equal pay at marathons, bike races, skateboard contests—any athletic events on public land.
A lawmaker put the idea into a bill that, if approved, would require equal prize money for men and women at any sporting event on state-owned property. It all seemed to be good news in the long fight for gender equality for women athletes, whose male peers have long been paid far more.
Now a push to go further is opening a broader debate over how to advance equality for women in male-dominated sports—and whether all-female competitions should be open to men.
Arguing that the bill inspired by their victory doesn’t go far enough, some of the same women who fought for equal prize money at the Mavericks surfing competition want the bill also to require that all sporting events on public land include categories for both men and women.
“Long term, that will be best for women athletes and encourage girls to stick with the sport and become pro athletes and get the money they need to do that,” said Sabrina Brennan, co-founder of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing—the group that pressured state regulators first into including women at the Mavericks surf challenge, and then into requiring equal prize money.
The group advocates for separate divisions for men and women, not co-ed competitions.
Still, including both genders at all sporting events on public land would not only mean adding women’s divisions to all-male competitions. It also would do away with all-female sporting events that were created to provide unique opportunities for women and girls.
That threat is raising a debate between those who, like Brennan, argue that single-sex athletic events perpetuate inequality—and others who say they empower women in sports dominated by men.
“Our event makes it a safe space for women and girls to participate,” said Amelia Brodka, co-founder of Exposure Skate, which puts on an all-female skateboarding competition at a public park in Encinitas.
Brodka said she started the event after several skateboarding contests canceled their women’s divisions.
“It creates something that is needed to build these girls and women up… The men have a million events they can participate in.”
Encinitas Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath wants to preserve events like that, which is why she’s resisting pressure to expand her bill focused on prize money to also require inclusion of both genders.
“My strong feeling is that when we compensate women equally, that will translate into greater equality and inclusion across the board. We don’t have to legislate inclusion at this point,” said Boerner Horvath, a Democrat.
“If we see in a few years that women are shut out of large events then we will address that. We will be tracking to make sure we have the maximum amount of gender equality and equity on our public lands.”
San Francisco surfer Bianca Valenti acknowledged the camaraderie of all-female events but said requiring inclusion of both genders is the only way to give women more opportunities to compete. She pointed to an all-men’s surf competition this month in Huntington Beach.
“If you look at the number of events available to boys and men there are many more than are available to women,” she said. “If you want to preserve those women-only events you would be losing out on being able to participate in so many more.”
Brennan, a San Mateo harbor commissioner whose advocacy for women surfers has earned her national attention, now finds herself arguing that men should be included at events that have long been exclusively for women, such as a surf contest in Oceanside that launched 12 years ago to showcase women in action sports.
“You have a Civil Rights Act for a reason and it’s important that we enforce it however that works out. Sometimes it doesn’t work out to your group’s advantage and that’s just part of the deal,” she said.
“For society overall I see it as the best thing for the collective good of all.”