The Risk of Gender-biased Decisions: Weighing the Cost and Benefits of Parent Judges in Public Forum

by Olivia Mccauley

We, girls, do not succeed in debate at the same rate as their male counterparts. In Public Forum, female entries constitute roughly 42% of participants (Rostrum, 32). Given near-equal participation, female debaters should be represented at similar rates on the mainstage and in elimination-rounds, across time.

But this is empirically disproven. At local tournaments featuring exclusively in-state competitors, only thirty-two percent of individuals who “make the stage,” or place, are female, a ten percent decrease relative to rates of initial participation (32).

By the time we make it to the national circuit, female participation drops to make up only 38% of all entries, and the disparity in outrounds is even more stark (Abbott 2). Only twenty-four percent of quarter-finalists are female. Females comprising only 6 percent of finalists. The median number of females in final rounds is zero (Rostrum 31).

The obvious divergence between rates of participation and of achievement begs the question: what exactly is it about the debate space that so severely disadvantages female competitors? Steady progression towards gender equality has triggered widespread recognition that gender achievement gaps cannot be ascribed to innate, biological differences that make boys more naturally suited to persuasive communication.

In accordance with this trend, the Public Forum debate community, as a whole, has gradually become aware of systemic factors contributing to inequality within this space. The preeminent theory, and most general, postulates that debate space as a whole prefers conventionally “masculine” social traits over “feminine” behavior, privileging assertiveness over deference, aggression over docility, logic over emotion, and an aptitude for conflict over resolution. But this theory misses who selects masculine traits for success, especially at tournaments: the judges.

While all forms of debate select for masculine traits to varying degrees, Public Forum is unique in the way it relies on “lay-people” to encourage students’ ability to sway the “average” person to their side. Public Forum was created in 2002 as a response to the “progression” of older formats such as Policy Debate and Lincoln-Douglas Debate (McCordick 1). Both activities had become exclusive as they filled with technical jargon and theory, and became exclusively fast, skewing many out of the competition. Participation required a level of expertise that had become prohibitive for all but the most well-off schools, which could not only afford coaches and experienced judges, but had a culture allowing students to invest dozens of hours every week into research, practice, and travel.

So, in the hopes of increasing accessibility, practitioners of Public Forum sought to limit the activity’s financial costs and reliance on technical terminology by turning to a seemingly simple solution: letting lay-people, or everyday people, judge. This often comes in the form of parent volunteers, who do not have to be paid as much to judge as multiple assistant coaches, and cannot be expected to understand technical debate jargon, thus discouraging the sort of elitism that had arisen in previous formats.

But in an activity supposedly tailored to lay judges, Public Forum debate gives them no support in fulfilling their designated role. The most obvious problem is that parent judges are not given criteria on how to adjudicate a round. Despite the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA), which sponsors all high-school Public Forum events, having published multiple judging materials and training videos, distribution is rare in practice. St. Paul Academy Assistant Debate Coach Bilal Askari described the lack of judge training for high school Public Forum tournaments, stating that “In [his] five years of judging debate, [he has] never been asked or mandated to watch a training video, or to refer to a handout with guidelines on how to judge” (Askari).  Despite extensive experience judging Public Forum events, he divulged that “to [his] knowledge, handouts are largely available upon request, but [he has] heard of no universal training video which tournament administrators could even choose to disseminate ”(Askari).

This creates a disconnect between us, the debaters, and parent judges. We are taught that there are specific rules and practices that competitors must follow, but parents have no knowledge of these shared conventions. As a result, a parent judge’s ability to adjudicate rounds is highly susceptible to bias, which frequently manifests in the form of enforcement of stereotypical gender roles.

On the off-chance that NSDA judge education materials are utilized, it quickly becomes apparent that the documents are entirely insufficient. The NSDA handout, “Judging Public Forum Debate,” should give judges clear, specific instructions on how to evaluate the outcome of a debate round. But it is a document riddled with ambiguities and inaccuracies and does not explain how parents should adjudicate a debate round. Experienced judges, such as coaches and former debaters, evaluate arguments based on the “flow,” a type of note-taking specific to debate. While there are multiple ways to flow a debate round, all provide a record of the round that makes it easy to evaluate who won or lost their arguments, and how debaters articulated the way those arguments should be evaluated.

Flows are important, because they create a barrier for bias to enter evaluation of a round’s outcome. Flowing discourages sexist coaches from making biased decisions, even if the practice doesn’t eliminate prejudice altogether.

But the handout makes no attempt at explaining this custom; rather, it simply says that “judges should write notes throughout the debate. (“Judging Public Forum” 1)” Without a clearly written record of the debate, it is near impossible for parent judges to practice objective adjudication as the handout, and all debaters ask them to. The only guideline for objectivity lies in this single direction: “when deciding the round, judges should ask, “If I had no prior beliefs about this resolution, would the round as a whole have made me more likely to believe the resolution was true or not true? (1)” Yet, no human can attain this degree of objectivity without explicit instruction. Essentially, judges are told to make objective decisions without ever being told how this is possible, disabling their ability to make educationally beneficial decisions. And without the ability to adjudicate a debate round based on the flow, judges are left to determine the outcome based on who “seems” like the winner: perceptual dominance.

So for lay judges, perceptual dominance matters significantly more than actual performance. But perceptual dominance, in essence,“persuasiveness,” is an inherently gendered set of behaviors. Small factors such as the pitch of an individual’s voice can make someone seem more or less socially dominant. In controlled experiments by the University of Miami’s Dr. Casey Klofstead examining the influence of voice pitch on perceived leadership ability where subjects were told to “vote” for a voice based on a single recording, subjects routinely preferred that the lower pitched voice hold a leadership position” (Klofstead, et al. 2702). This was true regardless of gender, as subjects perceived lower voices as “more competent, stronger and more trustworthy,” attributes correlated with perceptions of leadership capacity. (2702)”  By contrast, “higher pitched female voices [were] judged to be weaker, less competent and less trustworthy. (2702)” While debate may not select for “leadership” qualities specifically, leadership does constitute perceptual dominance. Appearing socially dominant is especially salient for parent judges who cannot flow debate rounds, and must resort to thin, impressionistic judgements when there is no obvious winner. Therefore, females, whose voices are typically twice as high as males, are at a distinct disadvantage in swaying parent judges to their side.

Additionally, confusing statements made by the NSDA handout such as “points provide a mechanism for evaluating the relative quality of debating by each side” would indicate that judges should refer to “speaker points” presented on the ballot (“Judging Public Forum 1). The only guidelines for point allocation are “unethical/inappropriate behavior,” “below average,” “average,” “above average,” and “outstanding. (“Public Forum Debate Ballot”)” The critical issue comes with the recognition that terms like “below average” and “above average” are relative, dictated entirely by a judges’ prior experience with debate. Parent judges simply do not have the experience necessary to designate a scale of “unethical” to “average” to “outstanding” in a space that they have little to no prior contact with. When the materials subtly suggest to the inexperienced judge that they should make their decision on preference for a given speaking style, the basis for decision making inherently becomes about a debater’s ability to perform within a mode of persuasion the judge subconsciously favors. In this case, it’s a deeper voice.

But it’s also important to recognize that Public Forum as a whole confuses parent judges as synonymous with lay judges. The Census Bureau reported in 2012 that parents make up only sixty-six percent of the population, making them a specific subset of the whole of a public purportedly judging competitors (Vespa 1).

In truth, parents are a specific subset of the population with a specific subset of traits. The first relevant characteristic is that parents are more likely to have traditional gender role stereotypes. In the Netherlands, (notably, a more egalitarian society than the United States) a longitudinal and cross-sectional study found that parents were more likely to hold traditional gender stereotypes than the general population. They first identified that individuals who chose to become parents are more likely to hold traditional gender stereotypes to begin with. Traditional individuals’ life choices are informed by adherence to cultural stereotypes surrounding career and family, which encourage parenthood (Endendijk 75). But over time, they also discovered that the experience of parenthood increases the presence of traditional gender stereotypes. The researchers ascribed this to the gendered division of labor that arises in most households, and found that the only group of parents who did not become more traditional were egalitarian mothers (1). The significance of these findings is that parents are more likely than the rest of the population to hold traditional gender stereotypes surrounding behavior, and have not been trained to avoid falling back on it in their decision-making. This puts girls in a double-bind, as they struggle to both appear perceptually dominant without ever crossing the boundary into behavior traditionally designated as “male”.  But since it is near impossible to fulfill both debate behavioral requirements and gender role requirements, female debaters are at a unique disadvantage to sway parent judges to their side.

Parent judges who hold traditional gender stereotypes are also more likely to enforce these behavioral expectations when adjudicating rounds. A study by Jacquelynne S. Eccles of the University of Michigan found that implicit gender bias causes parents to perceive children’s competencies in gendered activities based on stereotypic beliefs about which gender is naturally more talented in the respective domains, and that this phenomenon occurs independent of the child’s actual competencies. In essence, a parent holding traditional gender stereotypes is more likely to believe a boy is more skilled at debate (a gendered activity) than a girl is, which is especially important considering the role of perceptual dominance in influencing a parent judge’s vote. Thus, the compounding factors of instructional ambiguity and the traits characterizing parents create an environment where it is near impossible for female debaters to succeed at the same rate as their male counterparts.

The most common argument against training parent judges is that it is more useful, and educational, for students to be able to persuade the average person than it is to win a debate round on a technicality. But justifying or supporting the attitude that the winners of a debate should be so good that a parent judge could sit back and simply be convinced puts an undue burden on high-school students.

This attitude shifts the focus of the activity from debates used to develop analytical and strategic skills to appearing perceptually dominant. It makes the activity about the judge, not the students. When judges are given the impression that the winner is whoever team does a better job “convincing” them, they miss that the educational skill debate imparts upon it’s participants is not persuasive ability. The true benefits debate leaves competitors with are research skills, the ability to identify and magnify logical fallacies and shortcomings of an argument, and the ability to clearly articulate oneself. And yes, those skills often overlap with persuasive ability, but actually persuading judges in round requires prior knowledge of that judge’s biases, and the ability to tailor your argument, presentation or even your identity in order to appeal most to them. That is not something that debaters can do, nor is it fair to ask us to perform an impossible task. So the only thing biased judges who have not been taught how to make objective decisions teach female debaters is that they are not good enough to excel debate. And if parent judges inhibit girls from succeeding in debate, then Public Forum is not a truly accessible activity — accessibility is granted only to the people who parent judges are naturally biased in favor of.

This is especially salient when considering sexism on the national circuit. In recent months, I’ve heard substantial discourse about whether sexism is more prevalent on the local circuit than on the national circuit. Those who oppose the national circuit, particularly the tech judges that populate it, cite the extremely low rates of female success on the national circuit as a reason to prefer the local circuit, and by extension, lay judges that make up a far greater proportion of local judging pools.

But what these critics fail to recognize is that the national circuit does not operate in structural isolation of local circuit competitions. For the vast majority of schools, local circuit success determines how they will allocate often limited resources to travel and chaperone national level-competitions. That means as more male debaters succeed on the national circuit (and likely achieve a greater degree of success as well), selection of national circuit participation by individual schools trends increasingly male. And there’s very little coaches can do about this — it would be unfair in most situations to choose a less successful team over a more successful team, even if that decision means forgoing equal gender composition of traveling teams. This is but one example of the structural challenges female debaters must overcome to achieve success, but this is a significant one, where we cannot prioritize addressing the symptoms. We must address the root cause to solve the problem in totality.

The lack of female success in debate has implications throughout any given participants lifetime. Debate requires competitors to cultivate skills that yield long-term advantages in academia and the workplace, namely research, critical analysis and extemporaneous public speaking ability, all under intense pressure and short-time limits (Rowland 1). But these benefits only manifest after an extended period of dedication and interest in debate, something that is not possible when lack of success fuels mass female attrition after the first two years of debate. Robbed of opportunities to cultivate critical employment skills such as assertiveness, confidence and public speaking skills, girls who could have excelled in the workplace suffer. A group of Tel Aviv University researchers found that “agreeable and non-dominant women” have decreased earning potential throughout their careers,and are less likely to advance through workplace ranks (Baron 1). If allowed to pursue the activity to the furthest possible extent, female debaters would access the very skills they need to combat gender stereotypes and achievement gaps throughout their future careers. But when males are given disproportionate opportunity to refine these same skills, debate activities expand and entrench the very societal divides across gender, which Public Forum could so easily help dismantle.

However, the challenge of reconciling the necessity of parent judges in Public Forum debate and rectifying gendered outcome inequities is not insurmountable. It is critical to recognize that most gender-biased parent judges do not maintain ill-will towards female competitors. Rather, they suffer from an information deficit: the information necessary to evaluate the round in a technically proficient manner. This is fortunate, because it means that the path to solving this issue is simpler than one might believe. Judge training videos containing explicit instruction on how to “flow,” a round, and explanations that judges should vote off what is argued, not who is arguing for those issues, could significantly decrease prejudiced decisions.

Such an approach is already being pioneered on the collegiate level. Students from Yale University recently created a judge training video with the previously mentioned content, and utilized it at the National Circuit Public Forum Yale Invitational. The video and relevant training materials have since been circulating on the national circuit, and will be implemented at the Harvard Invitational tournament later in February of 2018. Increasing awareness surrounding gender, race and class inequality in the Public Forum community means this, and similar judge-training initiatives, will be adopted at increasing frequency in the near future. While it does not address the other factors contributing to inequality in the debate space, such as peer-peer sexism, or a lack of female coaches, judge training is an important step towards eliminating it.

It is not possible to eliminate parent judges from Public Forum debate, nor should the community attempt to. However, it would be irresponsible to allow the status quo to remain undisturbed. It is not absurd to make the request that parent judges watch a fifteen minute training video before they begin judging, nor is it a difficult initiative to implement. Public Forum will not be a truly accessible debate event until all participants have the opportunity to benefit equally, and that is impossible without making the judging pool as prepared, and therefore as unbiased, as possible.

* Side note: This is, of course, an oversimplification made for the purpose of making this piece a readable length. Parent judges are not the sole inhibiting factor for female success on the national circuit, but extenuating factors are beyond the scope of the analysis presented in this particular article.

Works Cited

Askari, Bilal Syed. Instant messenger interview. By Olivia Ray McCauley. 19 Nov. 2018.

Baron, Michal, et al. “All employees are equal, but some are more equal than others: dominance, agreeableness, and status inconsistency among men and women.” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, vol. 25, no. 3, 2016, pp. 430-36., doi:10.1080/1359432X.2015.1111338. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

Eccles, Jacquelynne S., et al. “Gender Role Stereotypes, Expectancy Effects, and Parents’ Socialization of Gender Differences.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 46, no. 2, 1990, pp. 183-201, doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1990.tb01929.x. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

Endendijk, Joyce J., et al. “Does Parenthood Change Implicit Gender-Role Stereotypes and Behaviors?” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 80, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 61-79, DOI:10.1111/jomf.1245. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

Klofstad, Casey A., et al. “Sounds like a winner: voice pitch influences perception of leadership capacity in both men and women.” Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. 279, 14 Mar. 2012, pp. 2698-704, doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.0311. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

Lynn, Julia, and Rich Kawolics. “Competing Standards: A Critical Look at Gender and Success in Debate and Extemporaneous Speaking.” Rostrum, vol. 92, no. 4, Apr.-May 2018, pp. 30-33.

McCordick, James. “The Corrosion of High School Debate—And How It Mirrors American Politics.” America: The Jesuit Review, 26 Sept. 2017, Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

National Speech and Debate Association. Judging Public Forum. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

—. Public Forum Debate Ballot. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

Rowland Hall St. Marks School. The Benefits of Debate: Why Supporting Debate is a Worthwhile Project. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

Vespa, Jonathan, et al. America‘s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012.

United States Census Bureau, 2013,

p20-570.pdf. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.

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