Addressing pervasive sexism in debate


Alexa Mark, Annabelle Xing, and Emily Shi

From the time I joined the debate team in middle school until the end of ninth grade, I was completely unaware of the sexism present in debate. My first partner was (and every partner since has been) female. Within the first month of joining the debate team, two successful female debate partners offered to meet with me outside of our usual clubs period to help me prepare for each tournament. Because of them, I believed that debate was a supportive environment, and I felt confident attending my first tournaments. However, as I began to attend national tournaments in high school, I saw the extent to which debate is a male-dominated activity. Though at school I still felt included in the team, looking up to the large group of female debaters two years my senior, at tournaments I ran into small clusters of suits everywhere I walked. In one competition a judge even commented that my voice was annoying, and then he proceeded to imitate it using an extremely exaggerated falsetto. I saw the male members of my team become friends with other male debaters from different schools easily, joining group chats that only included male debaters, while I felt increasingly isolated. Last year, I saw a debate meeting led by three male presidents filled by mainly male freshmen, in sharp contrast to the more balanced makeup of our team the year before.
Because debate is a presentation-based activity in which judges award points for better speaking, judges immediately have a large amount of power with which they can perpetuate negative double standards about female debaters. Judges will make assumptions about female debaters based or their attire, or claim female debaters’ voices are “annoying”and “too aggressive,” even when they are less aggressive than male debaters in a round..
On a site titled “The Hall of Shame,” female debaters can anonymously post about misogynistic comments made towards them by a judge, a teammate, a team coach, or just random debaters. As I scrolled through this section, a recurring list of the words and phrases popped out at me: shrill voice, skirt too short, too aggressive, be more polite, wear less makeup, be submissive, calm down. Problematically, these degrading comments contribute to a toxic environment that pushes out both new and experienced debaters.
Since joining debate, I’ve always been a second speaker, a position in debate that is typically associated with more aggression since it involves speaking without prepared speech and refuting other arguments. Often, when judges and teams see a boy-girl team, they automatically assume that the boy will be the second speaker and don’t bother to ask speaking positions beforehand. Fortunately, I have personally never had to deal with this because I’ve always partnered with another girl. At the same time, however, judges frequently telling me that I’m speaking too aggressively in round, debaters telling me that I don’t understand my own arguments, and others making fun of my “debate voice” have become normalized shared experiences among most, if not all, girls in debate.
Debaters also play a role in creating an exclusive community. Many male debaters form prep groups with people like themselves from different schools and believe that when a female tries to join, she is doing so because she is “scheming” someone in the prep group. Many female debaters lack the connections to older debaters at their schools that many males benefit from. As such, they get less help preparing for tournaments and less reassurance after they lose rounds. Though many debaters choose to quit after their novice year, many more are female than male.
Every year, like in most high school yearbooks, a superlatives list is released on r/debate, a Reddit domain built for debate. The list has everything from best first speaker and smartest Public Forum Debater (PF’er) to the hottest PF’er and most-likely-to-fall-asleep-in-round PF’er. However, it is unsurprising to me that the only superlatives given to girls are ones relating to appearance: most attractive debater, best dressed debater, most datable. Of the sixty superlatives, the only two related to intellect and capability that a girl can receive are best freshman and best girl-girl team.
The Tournament of Champions (TOC), considered the most prestigious debate tournament, requires teams to accumulate wins from a certain amount of elimination rounds at national circuit tournaments, creating a pool of the strongest debaters in the country. At finals in 2017, three out of four debaters were girls. Tournament results reveal the top debaters, but none of these three girls made it to the top in superlatives relating to skill. Evidently, women in debate are talented, but they’re not recognized for their success.
What worries me is that because the voting for the superlative is anonymous and public, it reveals what many in the debate community truly believe. To some degree, it is because idolization of male debaters is rampant. Superlatives on Reddit are one manifestation of this behavior, but others include fan pages on social media dedicated to praising only male debaters and blog posts made by random strangers apologizing when a girl-girl team “screws” over a boy-boy team that clearly deserved the win.
Systematic male idolization not only depicts debate as a male-exclusive event, but discourages young girls from joining debate. When young debaters see the same males at each competition, they become amazed by their circuit “clout” and, subconsciously, those debaters become models for what novices will strive to be for the rest of their high school debate career. Within our own team, the female retention rate visibly declines from the first meeting of the year to each successive meeting. I’m sure that the male debaters under “best second speaker” or “top speaker” do deserve a spot there, but the blatant disparity in recognition is too hard to pass as a coincidence.
It almost seems as if the rise in recognition of sexism in debate throughout both our school and the wider national community has perfectly overlapped with my time on the team. At the end of my freshmen year, three out of four debaters in the final round of the TOC were women. Soon after, as I also started to get more involved in the debate community, more people around me began acknowledging and calling out sexism on a national level. That same year, an organization called Beyond Resolved was created by two female debaters from Alabama who wanted to push for a more gender inclusive environment, and has since grown to include both female and male debaters around the country.
Now that I’ve become an upperclassman, the lower retention rate of females versus males has become routine year-to-year. When I first joined the debate as one of the only new freshmen on the team, I constantly considered quitting due to fears that I would never “get” debate or that I would never feel like a true part of the team. Obviously, this is not our school team’s fault—in any new environment that involves standing up and being confident in your voice, many people would’ve shared similar sentiments. I also feel incredibly grateful to be a part of the only grade currently on the team that does not have mostly male members. Although the reason for this gender ratio can’t be chalked up to one event, it was definitely helpful that when we were freshmen, we had three female presidents as role models to look up to, as well as older girls on the team who actively reached out to provide us with help. Recently, the team has been striving to be more cognisant of this issue, and to encourage girls to stay on the team.
All Writers:
There are countless other gender issues in debate, but the debate community doesn’t need to stay this way. Though the Gender in Debate Conference (GIDC) wasn’t an ends-all solution, it did serve as a platform to raise awareness and allow students to feel comfortable sharing their experiences. Only by discussing these solutions together can we change the culture of the debate community. Debate is an incredibly valuable activity that has not only taught us critical research and public speaking skills and connected us with amazing people, but it has truly defined a large part of our high school lives. Nobody should ever have to give up debating because they feel unsupported or excluded.