Sonoma County attorney wins women a fair spot at Mavericks Challenge

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


When the window for the Mavericks Challenge surfing contest opens Nov. 1, an elite club of big-wave surfers from around the world will wait for a phone call, letting them know that weather conditions have conspired for the perfect monster swell.

But this year, an even more elite group of women surfers will wait for the same call, knowing the eventual champion will get paid the exact same amount as the men’s winner.

It’s a landmark decision that puts surfing ahead of sports contested by both genders such as soccer, basketball and golf, although tennis has seen equal pay victories rippling across its major tournaments since 1973.

And the bulldog attorney who fought on the surfers’ behalf for the past two years, Healdsburg lawyer Karen Tynan, will be out on the same water south of Half Moon Bay, in a boat cheering them on.

“These women are very brave,” she says. “They were facing a threat of no contest running and they told me this isn’t just about whether or not we get to surf this year. This is about everyone behind me — all the kids surfing, the next generation. This is about where the sport is headed and we’re not willing to compromise.”

When she first met surfers Bianca Valenti, Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly and Andrea Moller at a 2016 fundraiser for former U.S. Representative Barney Frank in San Francisco, the women weren’t even allowed to surf Mavericks at the time. They had formed the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, but they still needed someone in their corner.

“They told me, ‘The guys are keeping us out of Mavericks, can you help us?’”

Up to that point, Tynan, 53, was best known as the go-to attorney who represented adult film workers, fighting to “keep condoms out of the adult film industry.”

She agreed to see what she could do on the surfing front and started digging around. “That’s what lawyers do, right?” she says in her Georgia-born Southern accent. “You get something on your desk and you kind of start peeling it back and figuring out a way to skin a cat.”

After doing extensive research, Tynan “came up with the idea that the Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission, with their power to issue permits, could require that the women get to surf.”

As time passed, Cartel, the company with exclusive rights to Mavericks, went bankrupt and the 2016-2017 season was canceled. Then after the World Surfing League took over the contest, the waves never formed in early 2018.

With a new Mavericks window approaching this fall, the issue evolved into not “if” the women would surf, but whether they would get paid as much as the men.

As contentious negotiations and conference calls went back and forth, at one point the WSL compared worldwide men’s surfing scores and women’s scores to argue that men deserve more pay, Tynan says.

Then the WSL claimed it was practicing equity in the form of “pay parity,” arguing that since there would be 24 men and only 10 women competing, the men should get more of the purse. After accusing CEWS of leaking emails to the media, the WSL eventually threatened to cancel the upcoming contest if CEWS wouldn’t make concessions and come to an agreement, Tynan says.

The key turning point came in early August, when the State Lands Commission said it would not issue a permit unless the women and men were paid equally. Soon after, Sophie Goldschmidt, the WSL’s first female CEO, announced the league would offer equal prize money to men and women for all events on the WSL tour.

After battling for years, Valenti and the rest of CEWS were as shocked as they were elated.

“They didn’t back down,” Tynan says. “I think it says something about the fearlessness they have — both out on the water and in the face of discrimination.”

Tynan knows what it’s like to work in a male-dominated profession. She spent a decade as a merchant marine on oil tankers in Alaska, Hawaii and Mexico. Pay equity wasn’t an issue because salary was simply determined by rank — every third mate gets paid the same hourly wage and on up the ladder.

“That’s part of why I find the pay inequity so abhorrent,” she says. “Even in a male-centric testosterone environment — just think about how people perceive seafarers — we still got paid the exact same amount.”

Growing up south of Atlanta, in Clayton County, Georgia, Tynan enrolled in the Merchant Marine Academy after high school because she didn’t have money for college.

She spent her 20s on Chevron oil tankers, pumping crude oil by the barrel up in Alaska’s Valdez Sea where “your eyelashes freeze in the winter and in the summer the mosquitoes are the size of hummingbirds.”

She eventually graduated from third mate to chief mate. Those years not only inspired her to take up employment law, after getting her law degree at Empire College in Santa Rosa, but as a result her “language is too salty.”

She moved to Sonoma County after marrying her husband, a Chevron ship pilot, and it’s where they raised their daughter.

Inspired to take the fight for gender pay equity one step further, Tynan sees this latest victory — only two years before surfing becomes an official Olympic sport in 2020 — as just the beginning. Next up, she plans to push for equity in other sporting arenas.

“The Unruh (Civil Rights) Act says that a business can’t discriminate,” she says, “So it should apply to any of these sporting events that use public resources, whether it’s the police officers who direct traffic or whatever.”

More than 45 years after Title IX passed, tennis legend Billie Jean recently tweeted “Cheers to the WSL for their commitment to gender pay equality. Progress is happening.” For many it’s not happening quickly enough. Former U.S. women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo recently sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for violation of the Equal Pay Act.

“We’re trying educate state agencies and municipalities that if they’re using any of their resources for everything from marathons to tennis matches or surfing or beach volleyball, there cannot be disparate prize money or differences in logistical support or different equipment,” Tynan says.

That’s why, she points out, no one should be surprised when the CEWS acronym changes from Community for Equity in Women’s Surfing to Community for Equity in Women’s Sports. “We want everything equal.”

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine