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.