A Breakdown on Why We Fight

by Sara Catherine Cook

Here is a loaded question: what are the reasons for gender inequality in debate and how does it specifically manifest? While most debaters recognize the premise that gender identity can affect both the results and experience in debate, understanding the nuances and how it directly affects people is a different story. Understanding these nuances are important; it’s easier to be an ally if you understand how sexism can affect the debate space. Personally, it’s been easier for me as a womxn when I understood that some aspects of debate were not always in my favor, but that it wasn’t my fault and most importantly, I wasn’t alone. Beyond Resolved invites debaters from all backgrounds to do the same; we would love to publish your thoughts about the nuances of how issues manifest in our community as well as any solutions you may have (for organizations like Beyond Resolved, on tournament/national levels, or for individuals to implement). 

Other issues like race, socio-economic status, ability, etc. also can negatively affect one’s experiences in the debate space in similar ways to the ones I detail. Many debaters may experience issues that stem from more than one aspect of their identity. I will be explaining issues in terms of my experience as a white woman; it is important to recognize that debaters from different backgrounds experience similar issues in debate. I will also be explaining issues mostly by comparing male and femxle debaters; nonbinary debaters experience similar issues but are often shoved into a gender binary in the eyes of a judge or the community as a whole, meaning many not only experience the harms that come with being non-male presenting, but also have so many other things hurting them. 

I’ll start with in round issues. There is a double edged sword for non-male presenting debaters in rounds. If you present more traditionally femininely in round, i.e. you are less “aggressive”, you are punished for it. You come off as meek and get walked over. If you present more traditionally masculinely, i.e. you are more “aggressive” or dominant, you come off as bitchy, or it feels out of place to a judge. This bias is also rooted in racism—so women of color are hurt twice as much. This issue also hurts nonbinary or queer debaters disproportionately as they are likely to be criticized for any presentation outside of a gender binary. Femxle aggression is more often met with a negative response, as the Kawolics and Lynn’s unpublished study analyzing over 1000 ballots from a variety of tournaments found that femxle debaters were twice as likely to receive comments critical of their “aggression” in round. (Here is the version we published.) Male debaters receiving comments critical of aggression still won 50% of the rounds with negative feedback, while femxle debaters criticized for being aggressive lost 80% of the rounds where they received said criticism. While it hasn’t been quantified, people of color also have to confront these stereotypes about aggression.  

Judges base their perception on what debate should look like on the idea of being “presidential” or politician-like. There are two issues with this: a. all presidents are male, the vast majority are white, and b. politicians who are womxn have had to assimilate; most are even-tempered, most of them are white. They have to fight the same biases of aggression, meaning that even if judges are basing their concept of a successful debater off of a womxn politician, that is still likely to be a mindset of being well-mannered and white. This issue is the root of a lot of in round issues for not only non-male presenting debaters but also people of color in the debate round along with every other group who does not fit into this “presidential” box. Judges’ biases in some ways still helps womxn who are otherwise part of dominant groups compared to other minority groups in debate. 

Voices for non-male presenting debaters in round are also statistically less likely to be preferred in the debate space, which ultimately affects the ballot in ways like perceived dominance and speaker points. A study by Professor Anderson finds in 2012 that when people listened to different pitched voices that asked individuals to vote for them in an election, and were asked the question: “If they were running against each other, which voice would you vote for?”, the results overwhelmingly preferred leaders with lower pitched voices. Lower-pitched voices tend to be implicitly preferred due to our conceptions of leadership. Professor Anderson confirms that “research on gender roles show that leadership is generally seen as a masculine role. Men are overrepresented in leadership and are perceived to be more assertive, controlling, and confident than women.” In debate rounds, Kawolic’s study confirms in its unpublished version that femxle debaters are twice as likely to be criticized on their speaking style. 

But, lay judges are not the biggest problem according to the studies we have seen. Male debaters under the age of 25 (who are most likely to be returners to the activity) are statistically more likely to drop femxle debaters. These judges are likely to be former debaters. I think the reason behind the statistic relates back to clout culture. It’s undeniable that preconceived notions of who is good and who is not in a round can implicitly affect decision making, especially in the closest of rounds. Male debaters who have just finished their debate careers have an idea of which teams are good and which teams are not; the vast majority of teams who are celebrated on online channels as well as just in general are male because PF is a male dominated activity. If I am a guy and I see a really good debater who looks like me, I am more likely to “worship” that debater than a female debater who I relate less with. Because of this, the debaters who are “worshiped” or thought of to be good are majority white, able bodied, affluent, and male-presenting (although rich, white, able-bodied womxn definitely benefit disproportionately as well compared to other minority groups in the activity). 

Thus, there are more male-male teams who are “successful” than non-male presenting teams. When worship culture trends male, male first year outs are most likely to know those “celebrity” male-male teams, and recognize characteristics of their debate styles as something positive; their views are shaped by trends in the activity. This isn’t all that abnormal—all debate norms are shaped by certain teams over time. For a more tangible example, more teams have started rebuilding in second rebuttal in the past few years. But these biases are also shaped because when a judge’s bank of “good teams” has the common denominator of being male, they are more likely to pick up male teams. Again, the same reasoning holds back debaters from other marginalized groups, and helps women who are privileged in other ways. 

Even more so, even name recognition matters as in close rounds, judges are likely to have a bias towards the teams they are familiar with – teams who have had lots of previous success. It’s an endless feedback loop: male-male teams are more likely to win each given round (In a study, former debater Allen Abbott found that on average, male teams are expected to win at a rate that is 37.6% higher than female teams), which further cements each of their positions as a “good team”, causing the bias towards them to increase. This is not to say that bias is the only reason they win – these teams are obviously very good. But in close rounds with non-male presenting teams, or teams who have less opportunities for success, it could be an implicit differentiating factor because of the three factors mentioned above: worship culture, debate norms, and name recognition. 

(It is important to note here that studies like these are inherently flawed because a majority of them can only measure gender presentation– in this case, by using the name of debaters provided by tabroom and contrasting that with a list of common names by assigned gender.)

On another note, femxle teams are also less likely to be “good” at debate. It’s important to acknowledge that there are lots of great femxle teams who are held back by the biases I have discussed throughout this article. I want to talk specifically about skill level and why womxn are given the short end of the stick. 

First, there are biases in coaching. As a coach, I am drawn towards kids who are similar to me, who I relate to. Yes, some male coaches definitely relate to femxle teams because gender presentation isn’t everything. But they are much much more likely to relate to male-male teams because those teams debate like they used to, and are more likely to have similar interests and mannerisms. Even more so, male coaches often cannot help non-male teams combat the issues they face in debate— they don’t have the same experiences to draw from. Male coaches often try to fix issues of confidence that, in reality, stem from sexism in debate by making non-male presenting debaters better at debate; that does not solve the double edged sword problem mentioned above, which often makes non-male presenting debaters confused on how they are supposed to act in round and lose confidence in their debate ability. 

There are statistically more male coaches in the activity for two reasons: a. because less femxle debaters means less femxle coaches outright and b. because there are also biases that exist for femxle coaches that I will detail later. This dynamic also exists on a racial, socioeconomic etc. level – if there are fewer people of one demographic in debate in the first place, there are also fewer coaches of that group. Male coaches are not inherently bad for non-male debaters or the circuit at large; a lot of them are great. But they are more likely to favor male teams and also less likely to be able to provide some of the types of support that non-male teams need. Additionally, there are a lot of really interesting studies that show that womxn learn best from womxn, or more broadly that people learn best from people who look or act like them. In a debate context, this is especially true. If I watch a guy debate, sure I can gain something, but I will never be able debate exactly like that debater. Non-male presenting teams need to be exposed to non-male presenting debaters. Even if they debate with the exact same style as a male debater, they will never be viewed the same by judges or other competitors for reasons I detailed above. The way that I act in round will never be perceived the same way as a debater who experiences different biases in debate. Femxle coaches also understand issues pertaining to sexism (most of the time); they can develop better fixes to the “femxle” problem rather than just splitting up femxle teams and putting them with male partners (happens more than you would think). 

This is one of the many reasons that diversity in debate as a whole is important – young impressionable debaters need to be exposed to coaches and other students in the activity who look like them, act like them, or experience similar struggles. 

Socially, debate is also against womxn. Because there are more guys in debate, it can be easier for them to find friends, thus creating the unintentional “boys club” that subsequently leaves womxn out of the benefits of knowing people in debate. This can bleed into team atmospheres, where guys on a certain team who are already friends will find it easy to prep or practice together and forget to invite femxle debaters on their team. Oftentimes, this social exclusion is not entirely explicit; conversations about debate can happen over playing video games, a game of ping-pong, mirroring the ways in which the boy’s clubs affect sectors like law and politics. The boys club is not always inherently sexist; men just tend to form friendships with each other easier than with non-male presenting debaters, meaning that non-male presenting debaters are disproportionately left out. 

There is also sometimes a negative stigma for womxn who try to break the “boy’s club” atmosphere. Guys are skeptical of femxles who try to befriend them, sometimes branding them as a slut or as someone trying to use them to get prep. This is not every guy, but often times if a relatively successful femxle debater becomes friends with a very successsful male debater, debaters from the community will say she is “sucking dick for prep” or something similarly demeaning; I’ve witnessed this happen, multiple times. When womxn don’t try to break the boy’s club, they are often left out of prep groups because it’s so easy for guys to just prep with their closest friends on the team which are likely to be guys AND the people they perceive to be better at debate (which if you have vibed with everything I have written already) who are also more likely to be guys. Social exclusion is definitely not limited to being non-male presenting in debate.

Even more so, there are unique effects for non-male debaters with male partners. Often times non-male presenting debaters with male partners are left out of prep circles because of aforementioned social dynamics. Male partners are then often credited with the success of the team. This also relates to clout culture —celebrity culture tends to emphasize white male debaters, meaning that on male non-male teams, the non-male presenting member often does not receive the same praise or credit for the success of the team. 

This is also reinforced by small mannerisms on the circuit – when describing who they are about to debate, a lot of teams will refer to the team by the name of the male debater who has more clout rather than the team name or the names of both partners. This is just a small manifestation of the creation of a destructive aspect of clout culture that often praises one debater, while ignoring the other. To reiterate: the same problems hurt marginalized debaters who are partners with white, male, affluent, able-bodied, etc. debaters. 

Celebrity culture trends male which means that often when womxn beat a super successful male male team or start winning, people tell them they don’t deserve it. Everyone has an idea in their head of who should win and who should lose; when that is disrupted, they say it’s a sham or say that someone else gave them prep, i.e. find any excuse or reason why that person won besides the fact that they are good because you don’t believe that. 

There’s also a negative conception of speaking out on these issues, especially if you don’t have much experience or success in the activity. Some male debaters imply that sexism is an excuse you make when you lose or say that some femxle teams being successful disproves the thesis that sexism in debate exists. Issues affect everyone, but disproportionately affect femxle teams, as well as teams with debaters of other marginalized groups.  

Because of implicit and explicit issues mentioned above, there exists a higher rate of dropout for femxle debaters. That creates another positive feedback loop: fewer femxle debaters in the activity means younger femxle debaters have fewer or no womxn debaters to look up to; it also means fewer femxle coaches in the future. The femxle dropout rate related to sexism reinforces sexism in the activity as well.  

Finally, biases for female coaches. Teams are way less likely to take you seriously because they are less familiar with you in the activity. If they don’t know you because you didn’t have as much “clout”, they are less likely to view your decision as valid. There is also a negative conception of “mom judges” specifically, as if femxle lay judges are uniquely worse than male lay judges; this same bias is likely applied to all femxle judges, just less explicitly. There is also a conception among male debaters that in order to counteract sexism in debate, femxle judges are biased towards femxle debaters, which is just statistically untrue; male debaters thus are less likely to view femxle debaters as fair judges. 

Even worse, female coaches are often expected to be the “sexism police” and have to be the ones to handle disciplinary issues because they are seen as more capable and more right to do the emotional labor within a team. This draws back to historic conceptions of motherhood, that womxn are always the ones expected to take care of children on an emotional level. Womxn are often encouraged to heavily take on the emotional burdens for teams, which Mollie Clark– a former debater and current coach that has spent almost a decade in this activity, in her interview confirms: “ As female coaches, we often get disproportionately burdened with certain activities. …in my experience, I’m often asked to discipline my students more than my male colleagues or to do emotional labor for students. “

A lot of people will celebrate their school hiring a femxle coach because now they are perceived as being inclusive, but won’t actually treat that femxle coach with as much respect as they would a male coach because they don’t perceive them as being as good. There is a trend that has taken over in the past few years where camps HAVE started hiring more femxle staffers. If you are a femxle hire, often other debaters view your hire as one that is specifically for diversity (if you are not one of the the top femxle femxle teams that are actually highly respected). Also if you are on a successful male-femxle team, a camp will most likely opt to hire your male counterpart in hopes of drawing more kids to the camp if they are not hiring directly for diversity. When you are seen as a diversity hire, kids are less likely to perceive you as a good coach and less likely to hire you. If you aren’t hired at a camp, it’s incredibly hard to get a coaching job; there are way less femxle staffers at debate camps. 

There is one other interesting dynamic that has been taking place for the past few years. A lot of male debaters, camps, etc. will claim to support inclusivity but then do things that are explicitly sexist OR only use their support of inclusivity for their own personal gain. Camps often use diversity in staff as a marketing technique, a. leading to the issues mentioned above of femxle and minority staffers being taken less seriously as instructors and b. leading to instructors feeling as if they deserve it less – hurting their confidence in their own abilities. 

Even more so, this often leads to faulty solutions, i.e. guys will brag about “taking it easy” against femxle teams in crossfire as if that makes them inclusive OR is something that they are now expected to do by judges, which is untrue. Some guys became friends with me almost just to use it as proof that they were inclusive (obviously, this can never be confirmed, just a hunch). 

How would you as an individual try to correct these issues?

I think there’s only so much one can do on the individual level, i.e. there is a need for both collective grassroots action (which is what Beyond Resolved attempts to do) and some top down reforms. With that being said, here are the things I do to try to correct these issues:

  1. Be as informed as possible about them. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to explain sexism in debate in a way that makes sense to someone who hasn’t experienced it because it is not really the people in Beyond Resolved or people experiencing issues who need to understand what is happening – it is the people who are perpetuating them. A lot of issues of sexism is implicit – if I can explain to someone that regardless of their intention, something that they are doing could be potentially harmful and give them ways to change their behavior to be more positive, that is likely to help. 

  2. Find support and give support. Finding a network of good people in the activity helps you feel like you are not alone in what you are experiencing and also allows you to dig deeper into what is happening – a lot of issues of discrimination are implicit, i.e. they are normal bad things that disproportionately affect different marginalized groups, so it is really helpful to have a support system to help you figure it all out and encourage you. 

  3. Call things out. If you notice something happening, try to call it out and stop it. The more social pressure there is against a certain action, the less likely it is to happen. 

A lot of these things are about the aftermath, in other words, helping someone or doing something AFTER something bad has happened. But taking these actions can often change the culture around certain behaviors and hopefully prevent them in the future. 

edited by Yukiho Semimoto, Zara Chapple & Clara Koritz Hawkes

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