Monash Association of Debaters

Leela Koenig

The rise of women’s debating tournament in Europe: what we always wanted to know and finally asked

When Oxford announced its first edition of their Women’s Debating Tournament
in 2010, Facebook proved its use again to the debating community by facilitating
a widespread discussion on the merits of organizing an exclusive women’s
tournament. Some participants in this discussion who expressed their indignation
at the sheer idea of making a tournament’s access exclusive to women were referred
to the longstanding tradition of organizing women’s tournaments in Australia and
Canada, where the tournament is praised for its contribution in gathering and
helping to train a constant stream of incredibly high quality female debaters1. As
such, it sounds like a formula for success, and perhaps Europe, where women’s
participation at the top does not reflect the overall rate of women’s participation
on the circuit (which itself does not reflect women’s presence at universities)
should adopt this formula with swiftness and gratitude. Yet, what works in
Australia and Canada does not necessarily work on the old continent. The nature
of the discussion before, during and after the tournament in 2010 illustrates that
Europe was divided about whether exclusive tournaments were the best way to
address the under-representation of women in debating, and in fact, Europe was
divided about whether the under-representation of women was a problem at all.

Nevertheless, after the 2010 Edition, Oxford organized another tournament in
2011, and the CA and convenors just sent out their invitations for the 2012
edition for which they decided to change the judging pool from being mixed
gender, to also be constituted of only women. The activity and the initiatives do
not only take place in the UK (Newcastle had a mixed team tournament in 2010,
partly as an alternative to the women only formula). In Jena, Germany, a number
of debaters organized their own women’s tournament, and in Israel, a tournament
that specifically addressed gender-themed issues both took place in early 2011.

The evolution of these tournaments in Europe is very interesting to the current
editors of the MDR, and we therefore decided to provide the wider debating
community with more information on what motivates the convenors and CA
teams to continue to organize these tournaments, and how they experienced
being at the center of a controversial matter. I sent out a survey to the organizers
and CA teams of the Oxford, German and Israeli tournaments and received great
responses from eight organizers and members of CA teams.2 The main purpose of
this article is to share their responses with our readers, and not to argue in favor
or against the presence of these tournaments on the debating calendar.

I present you their responses by first discussing what motivated the organizers to
go against the grain of the European debating community. I then provide you
with a description of the feedback they personally received, before, during and
after the tournament. Finally, I want to share their ideas about the future for
women’s debating. When respondents are quoted, I refer to their background in
order to preserve some level of anonymity (which was not their request, but my
own policy). This article is closed with some final thoughts.

Before I present the results, I wish to make two preliminary remarks. First, the
responses of the eight organizers should not be and will not be presented as being
representative for the whole of Europe. Even if they might reflect most people’s
thoughts and opinions, a sample size of eight is not enough to generalize to the
whole population. Second, precisely because it was a controversial issue in Europe,
readers might be curious about the opinion of the writer of this article, because
it might influence the way in which the results are presented. I can be short on
this, I am in favor of these tournaments, and was therefore especially interested in
what motivated the organizers and how they see the future of these tournaments
and the way in which we can increase the participation rates of female debaters.

Deciding to organize a tournament

When asked about what motivated the respondents to organize their tournaments,
one answer was universal from the IONA respondents: the dominance of male
debaters in the top rooms and finals. Next to that, five out of the eight respondents
also cited that they were concerned with the lower overall participation of
women in the debating circuit. Some attributed that to the aggressive sphere
at tournaments or the way in which female debaters were approached by male
debaters, whilst others worried that the number of debates that they had seen
which had arguments that bordered on equity violations against women might
have changed the minds of fresher debaters who subsequently decided to spend
their extracurricular time elsewhere.

One German respondent was concerned with the number of women who after they
had been debating for a while changed to adjudicating or organizing the socials
at the tournaments they attended. She reported that many women sometimes felt
shy and strange when they were being judged by male adjudicators, a sentiment
that is echoed by two of the IONA respondents. One Israeli respondent was
surprised with the inability of debaters to adequately discuss gender issues in
debates. Key arguments in motions that addressed women’s issues were overlooked,
misrepresented or, similar to the IONA concern, debaters unleashed mockery
upon the female perspective. The choice to organize a gender-themed tournament
in Israel, instead of a women only tournament, was based on the wish to discuss
gender issues specifically in the company of men, in order to create an educational
experience for all.

All respondents reported to have received mixed feedback from the community
around them, some hearing more negative remarks than others. The debate
about the merits of the tournament was especially heated in Germany where
the organizers were accused of having a ‘Gaza-strip mentality’ and some resorted
to calling the tournament a ‘pajama party’ or ‘the debating Paralympics’. One
German respondent confessed that the nature of the discussion ‘felt like a witch

Fierce opposition was not unheard of at the IONA circuit either, although
respondents did not report any such derogatory remarks. The feedback they
received was more of the concern that this tournament would be patronizing to
women and that this tournament would be counterproductive to empowering
women to feel comfortable at other tournaments. One Israeli respondent
considered the feedback that it would legitimize male-only tournaments and that
female exclusivity would not achieve her goal of better discussions of women’s
issues to be a good reason to organize a gender-themed tournament rather than
a women’s only tournament, hoping to involve men more in thinking about
women’s issue.

On the other hand, respondents also received a lot of very positive feedback,
not in the least from their sponsors, and felt encouraged to go ahead with their
organization. In Germany, many debaters reported to be relieved that this issue
was finally taken seriously and similar encouragement came from many in the
IONA circuit too. It is not possible for me to give an adequate overview of the
balance between positive and negative feedback, but that there was such a heated,
polarized debate in Germany and IONA is sufficiently important on its own.

During and after the tournament

Almost all respondents said that one important motivation to organize a
tournament was the desire to create a friendly atmosphere in which female
debaters could meet each other and form friendships. Some organizers specifically
emphasized the importance of senior-junior friendships between female debaters,
but all respondents seemed to value the idea that they were creating a level of
familiarity amongst female debaters which would benefit them when they would
meet again at future tournaments.

When asked about the atmosphere at the tournaments, the organizers unanimously
reported that much fun was had by all, and that many freshers said they felt
enthusiastic about continuing with debating, especially now that they had so
many familiar faces to talk to at future tournaments. More importantly, many
participants felt more confident, more listened to and were inspired to debate
more at tournaments where before they would have adjudicated.

One IONA respondent also mentioned that participants said they were reconsidering
the way in which they themselves had normally evaluated female
debaters. It would be interesting to find out more about how it is that female
debaters are evaluated, even by those who are happy to judge at women’s only
tournament, but that could be the topic of another article. Overall, the IONA
respondents reported that many of those who opposed the tournament had
changed their mind after hearing the positive stories from participants and seeing
the demand that existed in the community for these tournaments.

The future of these tournaments

When asked whether they thought the tournament should be a fixed item on
the agenda, an interesting pattern presented itself. Every respondent answered
in the affirmative, and every respondent made the tournament conditional
upon the fact that the debating culture would not change any time soon and
that the tournament should happen as long as it was necessary. This illustrates
the corrective function the respondents assign to the tournament, and that this
tournament is anything but an end in itself, but a means to amend the problems
the respondents identified as their initial motivation for their initiatives. Some
respondents argued that the organization of the women only tournament in
Germany and IONA should rotate amongst institutions, not in the least because
a regular appearance of this tournament would ensure the best impact. That sais,
at which point we can say that those problems are over, is a point we may disagree
about, but either way, there exists a firm belief among the organizers that the
tournament will contribute to improve the situation for female debaters. Once
the problems are over, the tournament need not be a structural appearance on the
circuit. One respondent put it nicely when she wrote that ‘as a community, the
items we fix on our calendar reflect our values’.

We asked respondents to offer suggestions about what else they felt could or
should be done to address the issues they had identified. A variety of proposals
were made:

  1. In the spirit of the Australian circuit, IONA and German respondents
    suggested there should be quotas for the delegations that were sent to either
    all tournaments or only to the European and Worlds Championships. One
    respondent suggested that there should be financial incentives attached to
    meeting a certain percentage of female debaters in a society’s delegation,
    which certainly is a thought-provoking policy.

  2. Two respondents suggested a stronger role for senior female debaters.
    One proposed a mentoring system where either, similar to the US, senior
    debaters would be paired up with fresher debaters in a mentor-system. The
    other suggested more pro-am teams (which can be seen as an encouragement
    for the Newcastle initiative).

  3. Many respondents placed a strong responsibility at the individual
    institutions to create a better, more welcoming atmosphere to female
    debaters. Societies have to invest time and effort into finding out why
    they cannot ensure continued participation by women. One suggestion
    was that boards should research the way in which interested debaters were
    approached and treated by senior debaters.

  4. Two respondents, one from Germany and one from Israel, both mentioned that
    the way in which the society presents itself to their universities matters greatly.
    Women should be included in promotional material and the boards of the
    societies that represented the society in the academic community. Furthermore,
    the way in which the society describes its own activity could also attract more
    women debaters. When a German society changed the description of debating as
    a ‘competitive’ activity to a ‘problem-solving’ activity, she saw a greater success in
    attracting the interest of female students.

  5. Respondents from every country argued for an increased open discussion
    about the under-representation of gender which would serve to an increased
    realization that this is indeed a problem which the European community must
    address. Some proposed an increased cooperation with the Australian circuit
    to learn their best practices, others proposed the creation of a women’s forum,
    similar to the World Championships. Regardless of the format of the discussion,
    several agenda points for this discussion were raised; the way in which feedback
    was provided; the way in which we evaluate style and the role it plays in evaluating
    a male of female speaker, and whether there was a presence of sexism at societies
    (or not).

Closing remarks

After providing you with the variety of responses we received, I end this article
with some closing remarks. The first is that it seems that the women’s tournaments
are here to stay- at least, as long as they are necessary. Based on the variety of
motivations that we recognized in the respondents, what these tournaments
will look like in the future cannot be said. The Israeli approach of organizing a
gender-themed tournament and attaching a workshop in feminism in debating
is a more inclusive approach than the completely women only third edition of
Oxford, although the merit of each deserves recognition. The shape of next year’s
German tournament is yet unknown. It will boil down to how the organizers
believe the problems that women face are best addressed. Where organizer believe
that there is a larger concern of sexism which excludes or scares freshers then
perhaps a women only tournament is the best remedy. However, if ignorance
and a lack of reflection on women’s issues are the most important concerns, we
all might benefit more from tournaments that increase awareness and invite men
to participate in debates that specifically address such issues. Some respondents
are explicit in their expectations of senior female debaters, and believe they have
a special role in encouraging younger debaters to continue to debate. Although
I do believe there is an important role for senior female debaters, we must make
sure that all debaters remain concerned about the issue. It should not be the case
that other debaters -young or old, male of female- do not feel a duty to oversee the
atmosphere in their direct surroundings and stand up against sexism whenever
they encounter it, or to encourage a young debater to develop her talents.

The controversy of the issue is understandable, and it is therefore all the more
important we stay focused on what lies at the heart of the matter. We must make
sure that men are included in discussions on how best to ensure the participation
of women, whether that is through the organization of events where they are
excluded from or not. An exchange of ideas about the effects of initiatives is of
vital importance to track the impact of the events and to ensure the event has the
best possible outcome. This article is intended to spread knowledge to each and
everyone interested in how initiatives to include women, or other groups for that
matter, work out in practice. I hope the experiences of the organizers and their
thoughts about the future have provided all of us in equal manner with food for
thought. They certainly inspired me.


1 This is of course not to say that there is no such quality present in Europe, or anywhere else in
the world, but rather that this quality is less represented in the top rooms or delegations to Worlds
or Euros (something many participants in the discussion pointed out). This article is, in part,
meant to investigate reasons why this might be the case.

2 With that note, we would again like to express our sincere gratitude to those who
provided us with responses, which not in the least because of their oftentimes very
personal nature, were very meaningful and insightful.