Forum discusses gender bias in speech clubs

Nishtha Sharma

Members of the UD Debate Team, the school’s Model United Nations (MUN) team, and the Model Congress team gathered in the Recital Hall during I Period Monday to discuss gender inclusion in their clubs and share personal experiences about the impact of misogynistic biases.

The event, organized by Debate Team member Alexa Mark (11), was created in response to the gender imbalance in debate, co-President of the Debate Team Sajan Mehrotra (12) said. The forum was also designed to be applicable to all clubs so students from other speech teams would attend, as the issues discussed have wide-reaching effects, he said.

Mehrotra has noticed a gender imbalance in the composition of successful teams in the country, he said.

“There’s certainly more we can do, and we plan to ask applicants for leadership next year about their ideas for better retaining female debaters,” he said.

The discussion began with Mark explaining why she organized the forum. “I think that it’s a really good chance for people to share experiences, and for some of us to think about how we can include people better,” she said.

Mark then discussed the gender imbalance she has noticed in debate. “Just as many girls join [debate] as guys do originally, but they drop out because they feel as if they’re not getting as much support as the guys,” she said.

“The issue is less about recruiting women to debate, getting them to walk into the first club meeting, and more about getting them to stay,” Honor McCarthy ’18 said. “Retention is much harder, largely because discrimination is so pervasive that it deters 14 year old girls from sticking with the activity.”

McCarthy finds that sexism in debate does not come from within the school community but from outside. “There were numerous instances of explicit sexism – demeaning comments about my appearance or knowledge of economic or sports related topics – but more often than not, I felt the discrimination on a subtler level,” she said.

For example, “male debaters would constantly be condescending to me, telling me to calm down, or call me naïve,” she said.

“I think we likely all contribute with our subconscious biases,” Mehrotra said. “The goal of discussions like the one Alexa hosted is to make everyone more aware of those biases.”

Though most debaters recognize these issues exist, hearing personal experiences turns gender exclusion from an abstract idea into one that affects people in your community, Mark said.

“You always know that sexism exits when you debate, but getting to know more about the ongoing issues through hearing personal experiences and being able to sympathize made the issue a lot more real,” Ben Lee (11) said.

Mark introduced several female members of the school’s three speech clubs, who discussed how their clubs have fostered gender biases and how that has impacted them.

Shay Soodak (11), Mark’s debate partner, mentioned the team would frequently receive comments about how they are aggressive compared to their male opponents. “Our only feedback was related to how we present ourselves, not our skills, which is something not all guys have to deal with,” she said.

Gloria Khafif (11), a General Assembly delegate on MUN, shared anecdotes of how she experiences sexist stereotypes during conferences.

“From things such as your outfit, to how you speak, you have to wear a persona that makes you more feminine, more dainty, and less aggressive,” she said.

Khafif described receiving notes from male delegates about her outfit choices, and hearing male delegates make sexual comments about girls, she said.

Similarly, Charlotte Cebula (11), who is also on MUN, discussed how her voice has been a big hindrance for her. “The way we conduct and present ourselves is much more important than our actual speaking skills,” she said.

Eliza Bender (11) and Amelia Feiner (11), who are on MUN and Model Congress respectively, spoke about the intimidating male-dominated atmosphere in their clubs.

Bender participates in a committee that is primarily composed of male students. In one conference, she was one of two girls in a 17-person crisis committee, a typical gender ratio, she said.

In her first Model Congress conference, Feiner was put on armed forces with a group of older, conservative boys. “I remember being so scared, I didn’t want to speak, even when all the junior and senior girls were encouraging me to make just one speech,” she said.

McCarthy felt that she was spared the worst of discrimination by judges because she had a male partner, she said. “I have boundless respect for teams composed entirely of women, who face it ten times worse,” she said.

During her time as co-President of the Debate Team, McCarthy and her two female co-Presidents worked to partner young women debaters with older ones, she said. “Cultivating a culture of mentorship and making sure women are not only debating, but coaching and judging, is key,” she said.