Women in Policy Debate

Women in Policy Debate

I really want to run a gendered language critique regarding academic debate teams and clubs. The other team almost always refers to me and my partner as "you guys" in debate rounds, and it's a perfect example of how our language reflects our patriarchal society. Teams win on it all the time. One could also make the argument that referring to someone who identifies as female as a guy is especially bad in the policy debate community, where upper-middle class white males have a dominant presence. In fact, less than thirty percent of debaters are women. 

The most blatant issue for minorities in the debate community is their disproportionately low participation in the activity. There are four times as many men than women in debate. Many attribute the lack of female participation to the masculine environment of the debate community. Molded to gender norms, “nice girls” are not supposed to be confrontational or intimidating. “Nice girls” are not supposed to be in political discussions. Some researchers go so far as to isolate the debate community as a microcosm of women’s representation in similar academic fields, such as politics or engineering. In a comprehensive study of women in politics, Lawless and Fox state that entering competitive academic pursuits require “character traits such as confidence, competitiveness, and risk-taking–characteristics that men have traditionally been encouraged to embrace and women to eschew” (10). These traits are all present in the world of debate, and because of pervasive gender norms, many girls feel as though they do not belong in a debate round.

Roughly the same amount of men and women enter debate, but females have significantly higher attrition rates. When novices begin to debate, the varsity team members are their primary coaches; varsity members  judge novice practice rounds, give lectures, and prep novices before rounds. So, when a female debater begins to realize that all the varsity members are male, she feels isolated and thinks debate may not be the right place for her, and quits.

Not only do women participate less in policy debate, they also are unrewarded for their skill. In each round, a winning and losing team is declared, but each individual also receives speaker points, ranking them on how well he or she spoke. Judges tend to give lower speaker points to women. As one judge commented on their ballot, “I don’t usually vote for girl debaters because debate really is a boy’s activity. I am surprised by your ability to handle these issues” (qtd in Griffin and Raider 1). Because people expect less of women in debate, they have to go to further lengths to prove themselves. Debate is an intense, time-consuming, expensive activity. Limited success can make quitting debate much easier.

Women also face general sexist behavior within the debate community, such as sexual harassment and offensive language. Sexual harassment has been highlighted as an issue since the 1990’s, yet still persists. Less emphasized but still a problem for women in debate is gendered language. Debaters will say “on his argument”, or “you guys” in rounds, perpetuating the idea that non-masculine identities are unwelcome in the context of debate. By mainstreaming masculinity as the standard for debate, those who identify as non-masculine feel unwelcome. The debate community needs to embrace inclusion of women and other minorities before they are labelled insensitively in the context of a debate round. These issues are sometimes addressed in debate rounds through kritikal arguments. Kritikal arguments (spelled with two k’s like the Germans do, because of the German philosophers cited in the first kritiks) examine the assumptions made in the round, such as the way the affirmative relies on neoliberalism or securitization to execute their advocacy. Some kritiks examine the debate community itself. For example, one team advocated for metaphorically lifting the Cuban embargo on female debaters with the goal of facilitating discussion in rounds about women in debate. But these kritiks are met with some opposition in the community, arguing that they are a distraction to the way policy debate was supposed to be. Note that these comments were made by white males. Policy debate has evolved activity in which one talks at 350 words a minute, uses jargon, and over-estimates nearly all impacts. Why are these things generally accepted in the debate community but kritiks challenging problems in the activity aren't? The criticism towards critics about minorities in the debate community are subconsciously racist and sexist because they dismiss issues facing women and minorities, despite it being an issue in the community. 

Despite these issues facing women in debate, there are a number of viable solutions. The most important is female role models. With other girls on the team, girls would feel more comfortable. With female mentors, girls would not feel intimidated or isolated as the only or one of the only girls on the team. Coaches should also go out of their way to include girls in effort to increase their participation in the community. Spreading awareness of issues facing women in debate through coaches or kritkalarguments is one of the most effective ways to educate the community to prevent blatant sexism and racism. 

It is so important to solve these problems because of the substantial benefits of debate for women. Debate is just one sphere that men dominate, but women in debate may go on to others, such as politics, engineering, entrepreneurship, the military, sports, finance, law, technology, journalism, or comedy. Debate can give a woman the ability to confront gender norms and proves to herself that she is capable of doing anything. Becoming comfortable with raising one’s voice and being unafraid to be “bossy” is key to empowering one’s self later on in one’s career or personal life. And empowering women to take charge is crucial to making sure women are heard in places like government, where female representatives are more than twice as likely than men to vote in favor of protecting women’s right to healthcare and other issues specific to women. By using debate as a platform to confront gender norms, women benefit from debate because they gain confidence in places generally dominated by males. The debate community needs to actively welcome women into the debate community to defy gender norms and help establish an academic outlet for women.


Celia is a rising sophomore at New Trier High School. She is passionate about human rights, gender equality, and service learning. She is also an ambassador to UNICEF and volunTEENnation, and has served on DoSomething.org's Youth Advisory Council. Celia contributes to the Huffington Post and volunTEEN nation's blog. She loves to read, debate, and spend time with family and friends. You can find her on Twitter: @celiabuckman


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