Breaking down barriers for women in surfing

A new exhibition delving into the gendered barriers faced by women who surf, and showcasing photographs taken by women surfers, will be on display at the University of Melbourne from Monday 27 November.


The SheShaka exhibition coincides with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence.

The exhibition aims to highlight how gender inequality in Australia remains a major issue preventing women from feeling safe in public spaces – including in the ocean.

Associate Professor Karen Block from the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health said the project was developed in response to growing evidence of gendered and cultural barriers to participation in surfing for young women and girls, including those from diverse backgrounds in coastal Victoria.

In 2021, a Surfing Victoria survey of more than 650 surfers investigated women and girls’ experiences in the water to identify how community level participation in surfing can be enhanced.

It found 47% of women and girls reported that a lack of confidence was the most significant barrier to surfing. Many participants added they felt intimated in the water by male aggression, “men that are scary and steal waves” and being the only woman in the water.

Verbal abuse towards girls and women by male surfers was also reported.

“These statistics show that women can face barriers to surfing and to feeling safe in public space. Surfing is an outdoor physical activity that can have terrific benefits for people’s health and wellbeing, so we need to learn more about how we can address these barriers,” Associate Professor Block said.

Over the course of 3 months, nine women surfers from the south-west coast of Victoria engaged in a Photovoice project with researchers to investigate their experiences surfing, which in Victoria remains a male-dominated activity.

Photovoice is a participatory research method where participants take photos to express and share their experiences.

Participants captured photos showing how they’ve overcome stigma, sexism, the challenges of being a surfing mother, and how they’ve built a supportive community through surfing.


Associate Professor Block said women who participated in the project are still connected and regularly organise to go surfing together in their local area.

One of the participants, Chrissie Duncan, shared her thoughts.

“Here there's not many women surfers, so it’s predominantly men. That's what makes it intimidating. If it’s a very serious, angry, aggressive, competitive lineup then women tend to be more intimidated by that because of the broader social picture where one in three women face family violence, or sexual violence in their lifetime. When there’s only men out there surfing it is more intimidating to paddle out."

More about the exhibition:

  • The SheShaka Project is supported by a Melbourne Social Equity Institute Seed Funding Grant.
  • The exhibition is part of the SheShaka project, led by the University of Melbourne in partnership with Surfing Victoria and Brophy Family and Youth Services.
  • The exhibition runs 9am - 5pm Monday to Friday, starting Monday 27 November until Friday 8 December 2023.
  • There will be two events to raise awareness of gender inequality in surfing held on the Wednesday 29 November (5pm-6.30pm) and Saturday 2 December (2pm-3.30pm).

To find out more about the launch events and the exhibition, visit the website.



  • Photovoice is a participatory method used in community-based research. In Photovoice projects, participants are co-researchers and they help to shape the direction the research takes. Photovoice encourages participants to think creatively about social issues that impact them and allows them to express complex responses to these issues through photography.

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Danielle Galvin