Thwarting Sexism In Debate

Lorelei Bailey | 7/22/22

It has been three years since Ella Schanke performed the polarizing Program Oral Interpretation piece titled “Debate Like a Girl.” Schnake’s performance highlighted the sexism and harassment women face in Speech and Debate. As a result, the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) made attempts to reform the program at the structural level. Reforms focused on regulations have been offered numerous times by people within the debate community, such as a petition for a new ethics code from the National Speech and Debate Association, a system to report sexual misconduct, and a process of accreditation for coaches and judges. From a competitor's perspective, the most noticeable reforms include judge cultural competency training for its judges and anti-harassment training for the association’s employees.

However, the effectiveness of the ameliorations is still up for question. It is important to note that taking the cultural competency course offered by the NSDA is not a requirement to judge a debate tournament, and oftentimes tournaments do not properly train judges in the events they are assigned to judge. This paired with the already intrinsic barriers to success in speech and debate make competition for young women extremely difficult. Many of the factors cited as barriers to female success in the workplace, including criticism of attire, voice, and tone, exist in speech and debate because of its focus on unavoidably subjective evaluations of communicative and argumentative skills. Additionally, many variables can affect a woman's performance in speech and debate, but the main variable blamed for the cause of sexism is male competitors' treatment of female competitors.

We can look at the history of young women’s involvement in competitive speech and debate to evaluate the progress towards gender equality in forensics. In 1925, the National Forensics League was founded by Bruno E. Jacob to motivate high school students to participate in speech and debate. From the beginning of its creation, the National Forensics League had prided itself on being an inclusive community. However, at the national level, separate events for men and women in extemporaneous speaking weren’t ended until 1984. This is because arguments were made that women couldn’t be as successful as men in these activities. However, as we know, the discrimination did not end there.

As president of my small town high school’s debate team for two years and a debater for over six years and four of those have been spent judging tournaments. I have seen the evolution of gender equality movements in debate. However, progress has been hardly noticeable in smaller tournaments. From my experience, judges do not receive adequate training in all events and I have had to rely solely on my debate experience and prior knowledge of events.

Additionally, I had spent my entire NSDA debate career competing in Lincoln Douglas (LD) debate. Statistically, this event has always been male-dominated which makes female participation in this event extremely uncommon and difficult for many reasons. In my opinion, Lincoln Douglas is a unique event; it is the only one on one debate event and with the rise of progressive or technical LD, judging has become increasingly more biased towards female competitors. Citing my personal experience, I am known in my small town for wearing bright or pastel pink blazers with sparkly, silver heels at competitions. Pink is a stereotypically feminine color, but that’s not the reason I wear pink. I enjoy the color and I want to be able to express myself in an activity that is often taken too seriously. However, despite my pure intentions, my choice of blazer color has been scrutinized by at least one person at every competition I've attended or judged. I have received snide comments from competitors and judges saying, “nice blazer” after a round. Typically, female competitors are labeled as “too aggressive” either verbally or on a ballot after a round. Progressive Lincoln Douglas style creates opportunities for young women to be critiqued on things that are vital aspects of progressive debate. One key aspect of progressive LD is what debaters call “spreading,” which is essentially quickly reading a case to fit as many cards as possible within the given time frame. However, this base-level progressive LD skill has caused me to be criticized unfairly after a round against a male opponent. This has been after my opponent and I agree on speaking pace, the judge and I agree on speaking pace, and after I offer to share a printed and digital copy of what I am reading off. The unfair critiques and comments about my clothing have made being a female debater a struggle, but not in the way it should be.

However, my experiences are not unique to me. The discordance of judging mentioned earlier is one of the main factors cited as the cause of these complaints. The cultural competency course many larger tournaments require judges to complete on the NSDA website is not required to be completed at smaller or local tournaments. This is problematic because an unaware judge can make their voting decision based on surface-level ideas of argumentation and appearances. At tournaments I have judged, female competitors have recounted unwelcome commentary about their appearance. Additionally, as a competitor, I have been exposed to jarring commentary about topics irrelevant to my skills as a debater. Any competitor can confirm that these practices are not relevant to the heart of the round, debating. However, thoughts about appearance, speaking habits, and manner can be the most influential when deciding on an inexperienced judge. The problem is, it shouldn't be.

Gender discrimination in debate and inexperienced judging have a strong correspondence. Having said that, the question of how to fix the persistent problem is still waiting to be answered. As stated before, many suggestions have been proposed to the NSDA. The most notable guidelines the NSDA can do is to include strict ballot table instructions, tab rooms should know and have a record of who judged every round, the judge and their affiliation should be noted on the ballot, and harassment and abuse training should be mandated by the NSDA. Taking it one step further, female leaders need to be supported adequately in debate. Male competitors need to be mindful of the commentary they make about female competitors. Speech and Debate have prided itself on being a community that has fostered wholesome inclusion, but inclusion cannot be achieved without efforts being made by the competitors as well.