The demographics of university debating are changing. Circuits joke about “dinosaurs” and when to “retire” from debating, while holding discussions on how to deal with eligibility as more and more debaters want to continue through professional qualifications and distance learning courses. Here we examine the impact of these changes, and particularly the way that older male debaters continuing to speak impacts on circuits’ attempts to encourage more females to debate.
It is important to note that the impact of debaters continuing later can be viewed through a variety of lenses including but not limited to: ability, class, financial means, race, sexual orientation. In this article, we will be focusing on the impact of highly experienced male speakers on female speakers. We also want to make clear that this article is not meant as a personal attack on any experienced male debater, and that our aim is simply to provoke a discussion around the impact of continuing to debate.
Despite policies and innovations specifically aimed at increasing the engagement of women in the debating circuit, such as women-only tournaments and training sessions, there continues to exist large disparities between the numbers of men and women in competitive debating. Even if there are often equivalent numbers of men and women in attendance at both national and international tournaments, this is not reflected in the distribution of debating successes.
In the 2013 edition of the Monash Debate Review, Emma Pierson discussed the potential causes of the differential between male and female speakers. One of the identified reasons for a disparity in achievements was that male speakers were typically more experienced at debating (see figure 1)
Figure 1. Number of previous EUDCs attended by males and females1
The surprising thing about Figure 1 isn’t that there is a gap in experience – debating has been historically male dominated, so we might expect to initially see a gap in experience between males and females – but that the gap is growing. Male debaters are coming back to an increasing number of EUDC tournaments. Women debaters are not. Our argument is that one leads to the other.
Why Having More Experienced Male Debaters Leads To Fewer Female Debater
I. Experience leads to more success
This may seem obvious, but experienced debaters are more likely to succeed at tournaments. Having participated in debating for longer than most people, they have had more opportunities to practice and improve their debating skills than speakers with less experience. Having had more time to hone their skills, they are more likely to be able to construct arguments in skilful ways, engage with other teams more meaningfully, and so on. They also tend to benefit from general knowledge of the debating circuit. This knowledge should not be under-estimated in its importance. Examples of such extra-curricular knowledge may include familiarity with certain motions or topics, knowledge of debate jargon or knowledge and ability to respond to the preferences of individual judges. All of these things can be useful, but not necessarily always decisive, in debates. In any case, we can reasonably conclude that a greater amount of experience in debating can increase a speaker’s likelihood of success at national or international tournaments, both in terms of ability to improve debating skills and in terms of extra-curricular knowledge of debating gained through increased participation in and exposure to the debate circuit
II. The success of highly-experienced debaters comes at the cost of other speakers achieving equivalent success
Breaking at a tournament is a zero-sum game. Teams either will or will not break. One team breaking in a particular position necessarily comes at the expense of another team breaking in that position.
The effect of this is to deprive teams and speakers that otherwise might have broken the opportunity to speak in out-rounds, and deprives them of a debating success more generally. In particular, this means that teams consisting of highly-experienced debaters are more likely to beat out less experienced teams to the break. Owing to their lack of comparable experience, and thus lesser knowledge and skill levels, they are more likely to be beaten by the highly-experienced teams, and the latter maintain a competitive advantage over those teams.
III. This particularly affects women debaters
It might be argued that the impact of people debating for longer is not related to gender. Whilst it is, of course, theoretically possible that female speakers might choose to continue to debate after first or second degrees, this does not occur in practice. In the small survey we conducted prior to writing this article, undergraduate debaters (here taken to mean debaters with three years of experience or less) were asked how likely they were to continue debating after graduation. 70% of respondents answered that they were either “not at all likely” or “not very likely” to continue.2
There are many potential reasons that women are less likely to continue speaking. One is the perception that debating is a male-dominated activity, and that women are less likely to be successful as a result of this. 86% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “my national debate circuit is male-dominated”, with 36% of respondents strongly agreeing. The figure is higher in relation to international tournaments (including WUDC and EUDC). 97% of respondents agreed with the statement “the international debate circuit is male-dominated”. Thus, not only is it statistically the case that there are more male debaters than women debaters; there is also a strong awareness of this trend. This may not be harmful in of itself. However, women debaters may also perceive that their success will be impacted harmfully by this gender disparity. 61% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel less likely to succeed at international debating tournaments on account of my gender.” Thus, not only do women debaters perceive that there are far more men than women in debating; they also believe this to damage their chances of success, which affects how likely they are to enjoy and continue engaging in debating.
This phenomenon is exacerbated by the predominance of experienced male debaters. When asked, “Have you ever felt that you have been deprived of an opportunity or success in debating owing to the presence of a highly experienced male speaker?” 74% of respondents answered affirmatively. Repeated experiences of being deprived of the opportunities we described above may serve to decrease the enjoyment that women feel they get out of competitive debating, and thus discourages them from continuing to spend considerable amounts of time and effort on the activity.
The presence of many experienced male debaters also has an impact on the development of female speakers. If a society has a large number of male debaters that continue to masters and PhD level, this will often mean that they take up most institutional team spots for WUDC and EUDC. We have both personally witnessed trials in which males that were completing additional degrees deprived women undergraduates of places for WUDC and EUDC.
This would not be so much of an issue in practice if attempts were made to mitigate against this by providing additional opportunities to women debaters. However, societies or experienced debaters may not make these efforts themselves. For instance, women may not be offered opportunities to “Pro-Am”. Many societies attempt to aid the development of novice speakers by partnering them with a more experienced speaker, either at an organised Pro-Am tournament or at another IV or Open. In practice, these opportunities may not be available to women, as speaking spots may instead go to male members and novice speakers. Highly-experienced debaters may not seek to provide these because they are primarily focusing on consolidating their own skills and practicing further. Thus, agreeing to Pro-Am a younger debater who is less skilled at debating is an opportunity cost. Note in particular the comments of these anonymous respondents:
“I’ve found that opportunities (pro-ams, team spots for major competitions etc.) are taken by confident male schools speakers in 1st year, leaving females playing catch up”
“…[T]hose speakers seem vastly more likely to ‘pro-am’ upcoming male debaters than female ones. That means female debaters aren’t just being edged out by older male debaters but by the younger male speakers who are speaking with them.”
These opportunities may, furthermore, simply not be available as societies may not consider the promotion of gender equality within competitive debating as an important end:
“My debating union makes no effort to retain female debaters or mentor them and there is a huge gender disparity which they do not see an issue with.”
Many women debaters perceive themselves not to have been offered the same opportunities as their male counterparts, or otherwise deprived of opportunities.
It should be noted that this does not mean that the presence of highly-experienced male debaters is necessarily always harmful to individual women’s experiences. The expertise in speaking and judging that many highly-experienced male debaters have can be beneficial to women speakers, in the form of providing constructive feedback or agreeing to speak with novice women debaters in Pro-Am tournaments, for example. One respondent commented: “I feel that some, although not many […], have put active effort into female development, specifically to improve the gender divide”. The crucial point here is that, although some highly experienced male speakers have contributed positively to many women’s experiences of debating, the net effect of the predominance of these speakers at national and international tournaments has been negative for many women debaters.3
Why Is This Important?
There is a trend towards male debaters continuing to debate for longer than women. This trend has consequences not only for the success of women debaters, but also for their engagement in the activity. Moreover, there is no indication of this trend declining, and so these problems are likely to get worse. Given national and international circuits, generally speaking, already consider gender equality as an end we ought to work towards- for instance, through organising women-only tournaments and through development and enforcement of equity policies- the fact that older, male debaters seem to be crowding out women debaters is a phenomenon that ought to cause us grave concern.
Drawing distinct barriers about when someone should retire from debating will be almost impossible. Many people don’t discover debating until later in their academic life and should not be prevented from taking part in the activity. This should not mean that we ignore the fact that allowing people to continue for longer does have consequences. WUDC’s restriction of four chances at speaking at worlds has in reality meant that many people save their fourth chance at speaking until they are in a third or fourth degree to maximise their chances of success, while EUDC has no restriction at all. While many circuits have provisions for novice tournaments, we aren’t aware of any that offer undergraduate-only tournaments that would allow speakers.
Experienced debaters can provide a lot to the circuit, through judging, training and offering pro-am opportunities. When making the decision to “retire” or not, speakers need to consider whether having that final shot at WUDC glory is worth potentially taking the breaking spot of a young woman debater.
Debating is an activity that many people enjoy. Thus it is understandable why speakers may choose to continue participating in it nationally or internationally. But this should not prevent us from engaging in a critique of the actions and systems that enable individuals to deprive women of important opportunities, and thus cause them to miss out on the academic and personal benefits that debating can bring.
The link to the survey containing the questions below was advertised in a small, private facebook group, of which the members are exclusively women debaters, and largely, although not entirely, debaters from the IONA circuit. Self-identifying women debaters were encouraged to participate and all the responses are anonymous. The questions, the responses and analysis of the responses are in this link.
Note: as this article is primarily a content piece and not a research paper, we have not relied solely upon the results of this survey to reach our conclusions. The results of the survey should be used as a means to illustrate the arguments we advance and to expose sentiment on the issues we discuss.
Pierson, ‘Men Outspeak Women’, Monash Debate Review, 2013
The full details of the survey are contained in Appendix I. We do not infer that the results can be treated with any statistical significance or to make generalizable claims about the circuit as a whole, but rather to indicate that there are people that feel this is an issue that debating should take seriously.
See responses to question 11