Barriers to Gaining Male Allies in PF

by Dana Silvian

If you asked any guy on my team, they’d tell you they were a feminist. And I think it’s true that they want to make debate as inclusive as it can be. But in practice, when girls are interrupted or excluded, when the boys club is huddled in their corner of the cafeteria, or when their friend says a joke that’s not funny they don’t always speak up. The intention of this post is to investigate why male participation in the empowerment movement is important, and what barriers are getting in the way of them doing so. 

Why are men important in combating sexism?

To make true change in the PF community, it will take both men and womxn working together. From Frederick Douglass attending the Seneca falls convention to President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, men have fought with womxn through most feminist movements throughout history. The same should be true within the niche of high school debate. It is difficult to fight inequality if more than 50% of the debaters are not fighting with us.

The importance of male allies is particularly critical in settings of subtle or unintentional sexism which tends to be the most pervasive type of sexism in debate. A study by the University of Washington looked at situations where men pointed out an instance of unintentional sexism vs. when a woman did. Because men have little apparent self-interest in combating sexism, their confrontations were viewed as more credible than those of womxn, and were often taken more seriously.

Furthermore, the same study found that there is a higher reputational cost for womxn confronting sexism than men because they are often labeled as complainers or “crazy feminists.” But confrontation by men against sexist acts can change norms and create an environment where womxn face fewer costs when they speak up. 

Finally, it is worth noting that many instances of sexism happen in settings where womxn aren’t present (i.e. boys clubs, prep groups, etc.). Men can act as vital parts of the process in these instances.

So what are some of the barriers preventing men from joining us in our fight for change? 

I decided to talk to some of the men on my team about it. Here’s a synopsis of what they said.

1.Difficulty recognizing sexism

It can be extraordinarily difficult for men to recognize subtle sexism.  First, because recognizing the extent to which sexism exists in the debate space involves admitting the advantages they have and potentially delegitimizing some of their success. The current system in debate works really well for male debaters, so there is an intrinsic incentive to justify the status quo to maintain their own moral and competitive comfort. It is really easy for them to say “of course sexism is an issue, but it’s the fault of my friends, of other teams, or of society as a whole and therefore is not my responsibility.” It is important that men both recognize their privilege and recognize that their silence provides support for the aggressor.

But second, for those debaters who do manage to get past this barrier, recognizing individual microaggressions or instances of subtle sexism can be even more difficult. It is hard to understand something that doesn’t affect you directly, or to understand how hurtful different manifestations of sexism can be. Part of the reason it is easier for womxn to recognize subtle sexism is because they are thinking about it more often than men. For example, when I am the only woman in a room of male debaters, subtle sexism immediately goes to the front of my mind.

Compounding this confusion, subtle sexism often hides within a myriad of other factors, making it hard to isolate. Just as a single natural disaster cannot be attributed to climate change, one hurtful comment, immature joke, or dropped round cannot always be labeled as overtly sexist. That makes it easier for men to focus on all the other factors contributing to a single event and ignore the trend of sexist behavior.

Finally, there is a bystander effect. Men sometimes assume that a lack of confrontation by a woman means that prejudiced behavior doesn’t/didn’t happen to them. In reality, lack of confrontation could be because of fear of backlash and/or a result of weariness from the constant battle that is sexism on debate.

2. Barriers to reaching out

When a man decides to become an ally, the first step is usually talking to a womxn on their team, but three main barriers get in the way of this.

First, there is sometimes a lack of access. Many men belong to teams with little or no female participation, making it hard for them to have someone to reach out to. (And, of course, the teams without strong female participation are probably the ones that need the most work.)

Fortunately these men can reach out to their local Beyond Resolved members, find femxle circuit friends, and work to develop a femxle friendly environment within their team. 

Second, among the men I have talked to, there seems to be a fear of reaching out to womxn on their team because they are afraid their words or intentions will be misconstrued. For example, men attempting to become an ally are sometimes presumed to be doing so in superficial ways (i.e. they want to appear approachable but are not committed to making actual change).

While these fears may hold true in some instances, womxn should assume the best intentions, and make those assumptions clear to the potential male allies they talk to. Similarly, discussions about sexism should clearly be about learning and working together towards a common goal. Slip-ups or misunderstandings should be met with constructive comments so that the potential ally knows what they are doing wrong, but not with scorn. Men are going to be less receptive if they feel like efforts to help will cause them to be attacked. 

Third, lack of direction. As an avid participant in many discussions about sexism in PF, the majority end with few tangible solutions. This shouldn’t be the case for discussions with potential allies. Potential allies and womxn should work together to find specific, personalized, achievable goals. (i.e. “I will find at least one femxle debater on the circuit to look up to so that I can steer away from male clout culture”, “I will call out my friends every time I think they say a microaggression”, “I will find 3 more womxn to join our team next year”, “I will make sure my prep groups have at least one womxn in them”, etc.) 

3. Fears of looking bad in front of male peers

Because many men generally pay less attention to or think less of sexism, and because sexism is seen as a female issue, there is a fear of looking emasculated if a man confronts his friend for an offhand comment or joke. This is especially difficult if they are surrounded by non-allies who will judge them.

For example, at a sexism in debate discussion that happened at the Massachusetts State Tournament last year, invitations for men to join were met with giggles and subtle mockery. It’s no surprise, then, that no male debaters and only one male coach came.

Men, especially men in power, need to make an effort to be role models for positive feminist behavior, taking visible steps to be part of the movement. Womxn can also play a role in encouraging men and recognizing that it can be difficult to combat sexism. Overall, though this fear of looking emasculate is legitimate, it is not a reason to not act. 

4. Knight in Shining Armor

Men are tasked with a somewhat difficult job. They must simultaneously confront sexism but not take ownership of the feminist movement. If men act too quickly to confront sexism without truly understanding, they run the risk of a) getting it wrong or b) seeming condescending, as though the woman cannot fight for herself. This manifests itself in ways like “mansplaining feminism” where men talk about sexism as if the NDF discussion they had once made them an expert.  

Frederick Douglass put it pretty well: “I believe no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself. Woman … is her own best representative.”

Men should be involved in this fight and cooperate with womxn, but should be cautious about taking it over.


To conclude, I am immensely proud of the reforms and awareness I can see start to manifest in the debate community, but I think there is a perception that feminism is a womxn’s issue, not a community issue. This post comes at a time where the reputation of Beyond Resolved in many circles is attacking men, not working with them. Starting to combat some of these barriers is imperative to bringing the full force of our community behind us. 

Note: This post attempts to expose many of the hurdles facing male allies, but not necessarily focus on solutions for those issues. That’s partly because solutions are very different for each ally. Any solution, though, will require men to reach out and be ready to learn and womxn to encourage them through that process. I hope that recognition of these barriers can help facilitate discussions between genders that focus on cooperation. Solutions are worth discussing and some resources are below for men wondering how to jump these hurdles:

Allies to Microaggressions:

Advice from current male allies:

5 things men can do to be allies in the workplace:


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