A Wakeup Call for the Circuit

by Arya Mirza

The fact that it was a struggle for me to find enough womxn coaches to interview about this article is in and of itself representative of the lack of womxn coaches in PF. Not only does the lack of representation carry on from the debate space to the coaching space, but so does the marginalization and discrimination. Because of inequalities perpetuated by the circuit (namely cis male debaters and coaches), womxn in the PF space aren’t equally valued as authority figures compared to their male counterparts. This has caused a widespread lack of respect and thus, of representation.

Female presenting coaches that are just as qualified, or even more so, don’t receive nearly as many opportunities as male coaches simply because of their gender. PF has established a space where female presenting coaches with more success and qualifications get offered less pay than their male counterparts from camps, their input is discredited by debaters and male coaches, they’re given less “clout” on the circuit, and so many more blatantly sexist standards.

Until now, PF culture has promoted a space where these inequitable norms go undiscussed and disregarded. Thus, until we read, discuss, and understand the experiences that womxn coaches on the circuit have, fostering any substantive change from the status quo is unlikely.

I highly encourage everyone to read this because not only will it be educational for us all, it will give us perspective from incredible coaches on the environment that a lot of us high school debaters will soon enter and have the chance to reform!

Huge shoutout to the amazing Sandy Berkowitz, Lizzie McCord, Liz Meerson, Eva Motoliña, and Kelly Zheng for participating in this!! We as a community are so thankful for y’all and every other womxn coach out there! Y’all rock:)

Some responses were shortened for brevity purposes, but everything written is a direct quote. Additionally, not every coach’s response will be there for each question, again, for brevity purposes. 

1. Has your gender ever affected your ability to find a job coaching?

Lizzie – I’ve never been denied or not considered for a job because of my gender, but I definitely think I was probably considered for fewer jobs when I first graduated high school because of it. Job offers are so often determined by who has the most clout, and in turn who’s friends with people that have a lot of clout (so they can refer people looking for a coach to you), and that is inherently gendered. If you think about the people who the community idolizes most, they are almost always men. 

2. Has your gender ever affected the pay you received as a coach?

Sandy – Yes, but I was not always aware at the time. And, perhaps I have been trusting. When I became aware, I worked to rectify the situation.

Eva – Undoubtedly YES. This is in the context of camp. Once I was able to talk to fellow staffers, I was shocked at how much male counterparts were getting paid for the same job. Even further, I had an experience where a younger male coach (that I had previously coached) was offered more than I was even though I was in a higher position and had more experience.

Liz – Of course. I’ve had to send hyperlinks of my kids’ rounds on youtube to prove that the coaching I’m doing is legitimate and the teams are doing enough on a nat circuit scale. 

3. Have you ever felt undervalued by debaters as a coach? (i.e. but not limited to – your input being discredited, or debaters not taking your coaching into account to favor male coaches’ advice)

Kelly – I definitely do feel like I’ve had experiences like this. For example, I was giving a lecture with my co-lab leader at camp about summaries and I was speaking when a student raised his hand. He asked what the typical summary breakdown was and when I began to answer, he immediately said that he was asking my male lab leader, not me. It was pretty frustrating given that I definitely could have answered that question with ease. 

Liz – Yes. I choose my co-coaches very carefully for this reason, and speak to them about norms and expectations for feedback and communication because the way they speak to me or with me is a model for how my debaters should value feedback and coaching.

Lizzie – Absolutely. The most striking example of this I can think of is one summer when I was working at a camp, there would be literal lines of students waiting to talk to my male co-lab leaders. I would sit there on my laptop waiting for people to come up and ask me questions instead of waiting to talk to one of them, and they just wouldn’t. It was particularly odd to me because I had had a lot more competitive success than my co-lab leaders, so if it was a question of clout based on success I should have had more. But since they were men there was a culture of success around them, even if it wasn’t based in fact. 

4. Do you ever feel as though your qualifications are perceptually not valued at the same level as your male counterparts? (i.e but not limited to – debaters not thinking you’re a qualified judge)

Eva – I was on a panel with 2 other judges. A male on the panel and I had voted the same way and our RFDs were extremely similar. After everyone had delivered their RDF, the losing team directed their questions at me. Honestly, it was a really complicated round and took a long time for me to submit. I understood why it was a 2-1 decision. But I additionally felt like I was targeted. Thankfully, the other judge (who voted the same way as me) called them out for undermining my RDF rather than his and not directing the question to the both of us. The response of the team was pretty defensive and they said they didn’t mean it. But that is the problem, discrediting female judges is not intentional, but the feelings that come from it are very real. 

Liz – All the time. I think there’s some hilarious reddit screenshots of my RFDs that disregard what oral feedback I’ve given. I can’t really take this to heart, though, because if people don’t actually hear what I’ve told them, they’re not willing to grow in debate, and will likely be stuck in a little bit of a “she’s not qualified and a bad judge” loop, which they likely also probably apply to other judges. 

Lizzie – Yes. I think there’s a weird culture of viewing certain people (pretty much always men) as “the best” judges and therefore the most knowledgeable people about debate. Something I started noticing as a coach was that there were a few people, all younger male coaches, viewed sort of mythically by the community. They just tended to be the loudest presence in the room who talked to everyone, so they end up running camps and getting competitive coaching jobs, etc. just by virtue of connections.

5. Have you ever had any experiences with male coaches disrespecting you? (i.e. but not limited to – objectifying you/making you feel uncomfortable)

Sandy – Yes. Sexism and disrespect generally knows no age or role. It can happen in various circumstances. We live in a sexist society. I would say the same thing I did in response to question 4: I will continue to engage with all coaches, especially those who would disregard or disrespect based on gender or other identities.

Liz: Yes! They look at me and go “oh, you must be a speech coach”. One time another coach interrupted my RFD and started giving his. 

6. Have you had any sexist experiences this summer/in previous summers working at camp?

Eva – The main thing that I can remember is men speaking over women (including myself) during lab discussions. I definitely got at my lab for doing this by calling them out whenever it happened and doing my best to moderate discussions. But when I spoke about it with some male colleagues they downplayed the impact of it and I felt invalidated in my actions. 

Lizzie – I don’t think I’ve ever worked at a camp where I didn’t experience some sort of sexist behavior. My first summer working at camp, I was one of four first-year-out women on staff. While these things pretty much never happened to my face, I know that I and the other young women I was working with were objectified not only by male staff our own age but also by our male bosses who were much older than us. On more than one occasion, our male bosses tried to get us to go out to an 18+ club with them. They would also discuss our attractiveness with younger male co-workers. 

7. How do you think sexism within the PF coaching field can be best addressed and changed by the circuit?

Sandy – I believe it will need to be a multipronged approach. Coaches must cultivate awareness among their debaters and among the debaters they judge. We need to find ways to make these issues central in judge training. The coaching community needs to create an environment on the national circuit, regional circuits, and local circuits where when someone sees something or debaters come say something, that the coach feels like they can and should talk with judges and coaches. This is something that everyone should do.

Eva – I honestly think that calling it out when we see it should be the first step. The example I gave above where a male ally stood up for me is a great example. But at the same time, I think that example needs to be improved upon because it needs a follow-up discussion so that people can internalize what their actions mean and how they impact female coaches. Additionally, we need to get rid of the boys club mentality. 

Kelly – I think a lot of it starts with recognizing that a success of a debater does not speak to their coaching abilities. I did not have super extensive achievements as a debater, but I feel as though I’ve done a fairly good job as a coach. It also starts with societal biases in general — female debaters often just aren’t seen because of their gender and the difficulty succeeding.

Liz – We, as coaches and as women, need to try to stop playing by the boys’ rules. I know that many tech coaches don’t want to seem interventionist– but there’s a huge grey area between being “tabula rasa” and “intervening against a particular team”–it’s educating people about how to handle arguments and why rhetoric and argumentation are important to communicating and winning rounds. Also–support networks around female, non-binary, queer and POC coaches is so critically important because this is such a white and male presenting activity, even though everyone in debate is such a weirdo and we should just embrace it.  

Lizzie – I think the only way it can really be changed is by hiring more gender minorities as coaches. I think a big way to address this is just emphasizing not only name recognition and clout when making hiring decisions, but also taking into account how someone will be as a teacher. Having a gender minority coach for gender minority debaters is so important for the retention of both debaters and coaches.Finally, I think we as a community need to interrogate who we idolize and give power to and why. Sexism within coaching and within the community in general will never stop so long as people who perpetuate exclusion are given power simply because they’ve been successful in a debate round. Being a good debater is great, but being a good person is a lot more important.

Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.

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