Women in Windsurfing -Equal by Nature
Updated: Nov 25, 2018
I have to confess that this is one of the topics closest to my heart at the moment. Gender inequality, Women in Sports and Feminism are topics that still call for our attention—especially in the windsurfing world. Whilst globally more women than ever are taking part in extreme sports, I feel that there is a problem with the growth and development of women’s windsurfing. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this happens in a sport where most brand and marketing managers are male windsurfers. A lack of support for women within the sport creates an environment where female athletes are unable to evolve in the same way—or in the same numbers—as men, which in turn feeds back to the industry as justification not to support women equally. This vicious cycle is one of the reasons that the windsurfing world is not growing as it could be—and as it deserves to. I have seen so many extremely talented girls join the world tour and have to stop after a couple of years just because they lack the support they need.
Not only has there been more female windsurfers taking part in the world cup in recent years, but the level of professionalism and skill has also increased. This growth, however, has not been accompanied by an increase in support from the industry. Women receive on average 5-10 times less support for the same performance as their male counterparts. I find this huge difference incredibly difficult to justify. The differences in sponsorship and prize money are also huge. Women get a third of what the guys get in prize money, whilst having the same expenses, and putting in the same hours of training and preparation as men. The top 16 men get free accommodation at events, while only the top 4 women receive this privilege. Knowing this scares me. There is a growing momentum of women’s windsurfing at the moment, but it cannot last without increased support from the industry. If riders organisations such as the PWA send out the right message concerning the importance of female riders through the way they support them, I believe that we can help windsurfing continue to grow.
I am excited to be part of a new generation of young professional windsurfers, ready to do whatever it takes to bring the sport and our own performance to the highest possible level. I don’t want to just say ‘we get so little while the guys get so much’, because the male sailors are also getting nowhere near what they deserve in terms of time, money, passion and talent invested. We are a minority sport with small budgets, but as women we are a minority within this minority, and I think we need to shout a bit louder about this. Looking at examples from other sports, I think it’s obvious that a better more visible female participation within the sport will widen the audience of the sport as well as the possible participation pool. The best example is in professional surfing—since the WSL committed to parity in prize money and the women get to surf in better conditions and at more events, professional female surfing excellence has increased massively. And then there are more and more girls in the water at all the surf spots and more and more brands selling female only surf apparel. Allowing female windsurfing to grow will ultimately grow the sport as a whole, so it’s strange that so far the support has not increased. Growing the sport that we are all so passionate about will be positive for everyone involved, athletes in all disciplines and categories, men and women alike. (Other ways of growing the sport will remain the topic for another column on another occasion…)
Lets get back to topic and talk about the ‘girlpower’ vibe I love within female windsurfing! From my first days as rookie, one of the most beautiful things on the world tour amongst all disciplines has been to see the level of support amongst female competitors. More than rivals who are in constant competition, there is an atmosphere of community amongst the girls, a bond that is probably created by the feeling of being ‘lone warriors’ in a male dominated world. When I started, the top women in the sport were always tremendously welcoming and helpful and I remember slalom events with as few as 10 participants, racing with only 1 heat. Now we have doubled or even tripled these numbers! But the spirit has not changed. I do my best to transmit that same welcoming and supportive vibe to any girl who wants to join the world cup, and I hope that more girls will be able to choose the sport they are so passionate about as a feasible career option. Being friends and competitors is not a given—but it is the norm amongst the girls on tour. You would think that where money and resources are scarce rivalry would be greater, but women in windsurfing have realised that there is strength in numbers and that only by supporting each other will it be possible to grow as a whole.
We have had many meetings in recent years concerning women windsurfing, and as a result I have witnessed some positive changes. I have also seen things that I wish I could pretend did not happen. 3 years ago at the IFCA World Championships in Sylt the 20 women entrants were told that IFCA was not going to be able to give out a World Champion title to the women, because they didn’t have enough titles and had decided to give the available titles to men and youth freestyle at another event. And that there would have to be 50 entrants for 3 years in a row to make a change possible. A meeting was held, and we complained how unfair this sounded, and—tadaaaa—the next year at the IFCA World Championships in Croatia we were awarded an official title! I was happy to receive the first official title given out after many years, but in fact it came as a total surprise: it was not previously announced and after what we had been told in the meeting the previous year, I had attended the event for other reasons. Whatever the case I want to thank the IFCA here for having made these changes. It was an important step and I am glad to know that we were heard.
Despite some steps in the right direction—like writing almost the same amount about women as for men in event recaps, and not sending us out in the worst possible conditions—the PWA shocked me more deeply then ever this year. After about 4 years of meetings (these are just the ones I personally attended) discussing how to improve the situation for women in the sport (not the financial discrimination), the women still ended up having a lot less events. Women ended up having a slalom world tour with only 2 events and as little as 3 finals, or a freestyle world cup with 1 single event in the past 3 years! Not having events is another way in which women are disadvantaged from the start—less visibility, less credibility, less chance to gain experience. In the meetings we were told (amongst other things) that we, the riders, had to work more on the marketing side of things and ideally organise our own events…! However, we were assured that the PWA would never again, under any circumstances, agree to have any new event with only men slalom, because they agreed that this would send the wrong message to the industry, the public, potential future events, as well as the rest of the world and all women in the sport. So when after all these years of meetings a new men-only slalom event was scheduled to take place in Marseille in spring 2017, I was beyond shocked! In the end, the event did not take place due to financial reasons, but it is clear that in the moment where the organisation could have shown some spine and set the right example, they once again succumbed to ‘industry demands’. I hope that this article and speaking out loud about these issues will prevent such things from happening in the future, and that more efforts will be made to overcome these outdated mindsets.
Women in windsurfing have to deal with a double standard constantly and most of the time the justification is that the men are more numerous or have a higher skill level. But this won't change if we don't create an environment where change is possible. Of course double standards for women are all around us—not only in the windsurfing world—but in windsurfing some of these standards are so deeply engrained that the people in charge don’t seem to be aware of them. For example, why should there be a rule that the maximum number of female world cup participants for women is 32, while the guys can have 64? We need to speak up more often about these double standards, so that they can be recognised and—hopefully—eradicated over time. It seems a miracle that while the rest of windsurfing has not grown much in recent years, the women’s side of things has indeed grown, and this is a change that needs to be seen, realised and acted upon.
Windsurfing is a tough sport: it takes passion, dedication and a lot of work, but we do it because we love it, men and women alike! I hope that more women will be given the opportunity to progress and take things to the next level. Since the degree of support has been so unequal, women have not been given an environment in which they were able to progress in the same way as men, but that also means that there is plenty of potential for progress and I feel that we are in a great place with many young talented female riders ready to push the sport. I hope the community will realise that there is some catching up to do and partake in this venture, especially by closing the pay gap in the windsurfing world. This will not only allow there to be a progression in athletic excellence, but, more importantly, it will grow the market in a way which will involve the other half of the world population ;) More professional female athletes will mean more role models for girls to follow. I never considered myself much of a feminist but over the years I have been shocked so many times by the gender inequality that persists at such an extreme level in windsurfing that I have found myself feeling more and more strongly about this. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said at the United Nations on her 16th birthday, ‘we cannot succeed when half of us are being held back.’