Pink Suits and Laughs: Why Women Quit Debate

Jordyn Rubman | 9/13/23

November 19 2021. While this may seem like just a random date, November 19 2021 marks my first ever debate tournament. It was a day characterized by anxiety, soda, last minute partner changes, and colored pens. It is also the day I can look back to as the start of this chapter of my life, the chapter where my Saturday’s are spent at empty high schools and my weekdays are filled with prep, practice, drills and Youtube topic videos. So many topic videos. 

I’ve never personally regretted my decision to join debate, however going into my third year in competitive Public Forum debate I have seen the sometimes toxic environment push out far too many bright young women. Often these girls are seen as just too “weak” for debate, but I think there’s more to it than that. There has to be a reason why women who compete at least once sophomore year are 2.5% less likely to continue competing when compared to their male counterparts (Theis) One common explanation is that women are just not “cut out” for the competitive environment of debate, however evidence suggests that it is not an inherent lesser skill of women that hurts their performance against men in competitive situations, but society’s belief that women are lesser hurting their confidence and causing them to underperform (Gneezy et al.) This supports my theory: that women don’t quit debate because they aren’t good enough, but because they are made to think that. 

Far too often I enter a round to see my male opponents smile and whisper to each other that this will be an easy round. Far too often when I am giving my speeches do my opponents laugh, and the judge does not comment, or penalize them for their poor conduct. As a result of these experiences I can understand why women might feel unwelcome in the debate space, and why they might feel like it would be better for them to just quit. Think of how many potential national champions quit because they felt like they were lesser for just existing. Maybe this is “just the way it is.” Maybe women will always have to fight twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. Maybe those women who quit were always meant to, and never would have made it. I don’t think that’s true. If male debaters have the opportunity to compete without being made to feel lesser than female debaters should get that too. If male debaters don’t feel a need to either be the best or quit, then female debaters shouldn’t feel that either. 

But if that’s just the culture of debate, what can we do to fix it?

First, equity officers at all tournaments. In the NJ circuit there are equity officers (adults whose job is to deal with issues of prejudice in round and decide if punishment is needed) at many tournaments, and those are critical people to have at tournaments to make female debaters feel like they always have someone in their corner, and maybe even provide a deterrence for these misogynistic behaviors. 

Second would be stricter conduct rules. Meaning, punishments for debaters who laugh at their opponents in round, or who make misogynistic comments towards female debaters. The NSDA already has some rules in place to protect women debaters, however in my experience going through the process to talk to the Equity Officer at a tournament is often tedious, and rarely leads to an actual punishment. Examples of what this could look like is advertising for tournament equity officers, and after hearing both parties if the officer finds a problem disqualification for those at fault, or at the very least a round loss. 

Third, microaggression training for judges. Judges are supposed to be the adults in the room, which gives them a unique position to stand up for female debaters being treated badly by their opponents. By making training mandatory for judges the only adults in round can learn how to spot these microaggressions, and even if the students themselves aren’t comfortable pointing it out the judges can either take it to the equity officers or evaluate the round with the lens of one party being disrespectful. That could hopefully prevent misogynists winning tournaments just because they bullied the female teams into making mistakes. 

Last, a willingness from debaters (specifically male debaters) to be kind. That sounds cliche but if people were more willing to just be polite in round and save comments for after the round then there wouldn’t be this stigma and these microaggressions that push female debaters out of the space. 

Overall, things are getting better. There are more women in debate than ever, and more women are succeeding competitively. This doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do, and things the debate community as a whole can do to make debate welcoming to everyone. Everyone deserves to compete and feel like they belong, and it is the responsibility of tournaments to provide a space where that is possible.