The Success of Women in Debate: Are We Slipping?

I decided to write this because I noticed a consistent theme in many of my conversations and thoughts this weekend at the Kentucky tournament. I want to go ahead and dismiss some of the excuses before I continue any further. Yes, there are examples of women who have achieved success in recent history and who are successful today. My point is not that there aren’t any; it is rather that there are too few. I guess the best way to describe my feelings on this issue is confusion. I don’t understand why this issue has to keep coming up. I know the solutions aren’t perfect, but we’ve at least sketched out some reasonable steps that everyone should be taking to improve the situation (make debate a less hostile environment and work to build and preserve self-esteem and confidence). I guess I have a two part question. Is it that these methods are no longer as effective, or have we just stopped doing them enough?

One of the major conversational topics was speaker points. I don’t think we need to lay the blame on the 100 point scale. I think the newness of the 100 point scale just refocused attention on an issue that has always been with us. Only three women received a speaker award (given to the top 20) at Kentucky. NONE were in the top ten. I realize it is unrealistic to expect parity in terms of success in numbers until we see parity in terms of participation, but there is an added oddity to these numbers. This was the break down:

1-10: 0 women
11-20: 3 women
21-30: 5 women
31-50: 1 woman

Does this bunching of women around and just below the speaker award cut off point suggest something of a speaker award glass ceiling? Georgia State didn’t show quite the same breakdown, but still only 5 women in the top 40. Gonzaga was somewhat better. I counted at least 10 women in the top 50 (apologies for an inaccurate count as some of the names were unfamiliar to me).

The dearth of successful female debaters creates bigger issues. It becomes self reinforcing when there are fewer successful role models available for hire as coaches at both the assistant and director level as well as for lab leaders at summer institutes. When competitive success is a necessary perquisite for being hired, it’s difficult to find qualified applicants even when you’re actively seeking them out. There are just too few to go around. I know how hard it can be to get these kinds of jobs when you weren’t well known as a successful debater, but I can’t imagine how much harder it must be for women who haven’t had/didn’t have competitive success.

The last major issue that came up informally in a round was the issue of gendered language. Maybe I’m getting old, but I debated in an era where it was close to taboo. There were probably a lot of contributing factors, including the testimony of numerous women on edebate and other forums that it was an important issue or the success that debaters like Rachel Saloom and Sarah Holbrook had running the argument, but it seemed like something that (for the most part) debaters just didn’t do. However, I am noticing the practice more each year. I have to add that this is a problem I encounter more at the high school level. This comes up in all the same ways (turning in evidence that contains gendered language, referencing arguments a female debater made as “he said”, etc.). I think maybe we should be doing more to make young debaters aware of progress the community has made so we don’t forget or regress.

I do have one caveat about the issue of gendered language. It seems to me that I hear more women in debate say that they don’t care or are unconcerned about the issue. Let me be clear that I’m not calling for teams to dust off their gendered language files and run them whenever the first opportunity presents itself. If this community has made some progress in terms of being receptive to women, and if that progress means that women no longer feel the use of gendered language affects their willingness to participate in the activity, then that is probably a good thing. However, if it is a problem and it does matter, say something. Whether it is a simple correction, a post-round heads up, or a formal argument is up to you.

This is a guest contribution by Whit Whitmore, Assistant Debate Coach at the University of Michigan and Woodward Academy.

19 thoughts on “The Success of Women in Debate: Are We Slipping?

  1. Jeffrey Miller

    We did some analysis on the female to male ratios last year at the TOC and NDT. And found the same results–

    However, if you think about it — this was pointed out to me by Maggie Berthiaume- there are several teams that break at the Tournament of Champions year after year are coached by females – for instance last year you had GBN, GBS, Hooch, Westminster, Lexington, Pace, and many more.

  2. A Numbers Game

    18% of the top 50 speakers were women. How many women were participating? I am also curious about how many of the bottom 50 speakers were women.

    I enjoyed reading this post by Whit and the post by Jeffrey Miller. I think questions of under- or over-representation in many categories deserve further study. I would be interested in the numbers for not only sex, but also race, sexual orientation, political orientation, height/weight, wealth, and argumentative choice.

    Some of this data would be tough to gather, but I think I have seen at least three statistical analyses like this appear in peer-reviewed communications journals. One was about speaking speed, one was about sexual harassment, and I think the third was about judge philosophy. Maybe publication will entice someone to do the leg work necessary.

  3. Stefan

    Gendered language is used much more frequently in most settings substantially more than it is used in policy debate, yet the participation of women in other settings is substantially greater than it is in debate.

  4. gulakov

    Tumposky 4 – associate professor of Curriculum and Teaching, Monlclair State University (Nancy, Nov/Dec, The Debate Debate, The Clearing House 78.2, proquest, AG)

    This scenario is familiar to most of us. Debate has been a well-known pedagogical technique since there have been written records about teaching and learning. Originally employed for learning philosophy and theology, debate was later used in the fields of history, law, literature, and the physical sciences. It has endured even as other traditional methods fall by the wayside or come under attack. Debate remains virtually unchallenged (or at least ignored) by critics, and several well-known universities (for example, Stanford, Emory, Vermont, and Michigan) bolster its image by holding summer institutes where young scholars hone their debating skills. There is at least one Web site ( with an online database of arguments for and against hundreds of debate topics. “Debate Central” at the University of Vermont ( also provides high school and college students with links to research and information. Outside the academic sector, the Open Society Institute (OSI) of the Soros Foundation promotes classroom debate, emphasizes its connection to democratic ideals, and sponsors the Urban Debate Program, which “seeks to institutionalize competitive policy debate as an extracurricular and academic activity in urban school districts across the United States” (Soros Foundation). These sources are a small indication of the widespread acceptance of debate as a vehicle for teaching and learning at the levels of both secondary and higher education, despite the lack of any validating research, qualitative or quantitative, to support its effectiveness. What, then, is the source of its enduring appeal?

    [several paragraphs (outlining the benefits of debate) are omitted for this blog post]

    Classroom debate, however, may not be the useful and powerful learning tool that its proponents claim. Two types of critique can be made: one epistemological and one psychological.

    First, the epistemological. Debate can oversimplify and misrepresent the nature of knowledge. By setting up issues as dichotomies, debate reinforces a Western bias toward dualism and ignores the multiplicity of perspectives inherent in many issues. One example that comes to mind is from my own work in schools. Several years ago, I supervised a student teacher in a middle school in which the students were working on an extensive study of the possible effects of the proposed Three Gorges Dam in China. The students’ research problem was phrased in an open-ended way (“What changes would the building of this dam bring to the Chinese people?”) rather than as a dichotomous debate question (“Are you for or against the building of the Three Gorges Dam?”). By working with an open-ended question, the students carried out their research in a manner similar to that of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), a pedagogical model that challenges students to identify and resolve real-life problems rich in ambiguity and complexity (Barell 1995). Using PBL, students can consider a multiplicity of relationships and are permitted to be tentative. In contrast, a debate format for this topic probably would have led to an emphasis on competition, directing much of the students’ time and energy toward the question of winning or losing. As Kohn (1986) noted: “[I]n a debate (as opposed to a discussion or a dialogue), the point is to win rather than to reach the best solution” (156). Tannen (1998) described in detail what happens to the object of inquiry when debate participants are focused on winning:

    [T] he students who are arguing are not addressing the subtleties, nuances, or complexities of the points they are making or disputing. They do not have that luxury because they want to win the argument-so they must go for the most gross and dramatic statements they can muster. They will not concede an opponent’s point, even if they can see its validity, because that would weaken their position. (256)

    A dualistic format often trivializes complex ideas or focuses selectively on aspects that strengthen one’s argument. Ideas are sometimes reduced to sound bites, as our televised presidential debates so often lamentably illustrate.

    An additional epistemological flaw inherent in the debate format is the need for two sides to validate a point of view that most reasonable people would find lacking legitimacy, such as Holocaust denial. It should be remembered that not every issue has a reasonable “other side of the story.”

    In his discussion of the outcomes of schooling in a democracy, Soder (2003) noted: “Good citizens in a democracy need to have patience, tolerance for ambiguity, and an aversion to either/or ‘solutions'” (37). Debate as a form of civic dialogue is weak in all three of these areas.

    The second critique of debate is psychological and has to do with the conditions under which most people learn best. Debate, even when set up under the Karl Popper Format, fosters a confrontational classroom environment that is characterized by a win/lose mentality and favors students who are comfortable with what has been called “ritualized opposition,” public display followed by argument and challenge (Ong 1981). In her study of how males and females communicate, sociolinguist Tannen (1992) found that an adversarial environment is antithetical to the way most females learn and like to interact. She also notes that “most women are more comfortable speaking in private to a small group of people they know well” (1992, 7). Other research suggests that very few women are comfortable with adversarial argument, in or out of classrooms. In an interview study with American college students, researchers found that “the classic dormitory bull session with students assailing their opponents’ logic and attacking their evidence, seems to occur rarely among women” (Belenky et al. 1986, 105). Thus, approximately half of the population, females, is uncomfortable with oppositional forms of communication. Likewise, many male students who come from cultures that value social harmony rather than individualism also are likely to prefer pedagogies that seek harmony among participants rather than pitting one student against another. It is not surprising that in multicultural education many African-American, Latino, Native American, and Asian students use styles of inquiry that differ from those employed most often in American classrooms (Gay 2000).


    Although the benefits of debate are important, classroom debate has not been proven to be an effective means for reaching goals associated with critical thinking, such as peer interaction, analysis, and metacognitive awareness. Genuine peer interaction is more likely to occur in settings that are more loosely structured and where all participants feel psychologically at ease and are willing to contribute to the dialogue. There are well-researched interactive techniques (Cohen and Lotan 1997) that minimize the interpersonal friction of debate and attempt to realign pre-existing status differences among students. There is also a wide variety of well-documented peer activities associated with cooperative learning (Johnson and Johnson 1994). The development of analytic skills can be accomplished through study of an issue and preparation for debate and rebuttal but, as noted, many of the materials prepared for student debaters supply fully constructed arguments, with pro and con points arranged in columns for quick reference. In these cases, the analytical thinking already has been done, and it remains for the student only to learn to speak more loudly or persuasively than her or his opponent. Surely analysis can be nurtured more effectively, perhaps through writing, close reading, and dialogue. As for metacognition, cognitive awareness and empathy are addressed in many pedagogies, such as problem-based learning and dialogue in the tradition of Freire (1970), so it is difficult to make the case that debate alone could develop that capacity in learners.

    In sum, debate does not stand up well when scrutinized as a pedagogy to help students become acculturated into a democracy. On the contrary, debate as a teaching technique is rather unsuited to schools in an increasingly multilingual, multicultural, and economically diverse society. Neither the force of tradition nor the supposed strengths of the adversarial model are adequate to sustain a classroom practice that, upon closer examination, proves to be lacking. Classroom debate needs to be re-examined by educators interested in methods that are efficient, effective, and consistent with the values of equity and fairness.

  5. Scott Phillips


    Not that I don’t enjoy the ol’ debate causes hcaust denial arg from people who don’t really seem to know what debate is, but what is the applicability here? Just debate –> intolerance?

  6. Bill Batterman

    @Scott Phillips

    The last paragraph before the conclusion argues that women (and non-whites) do not succeed in oppositional learning environments. I don’t know why that would be the case (the article just says “studies prove”), but I assume that’s why AG posted it.

  7. Whit Whitmore

    There are two sections of the debate bad argument that he posted. The epistemological part makes the ‘debate leads to radical positions’ argument. The psychological part makes a different argument. My knee-jerk epistemologically engrained debate reaction was that this author was making a biological determinism (women are just naturally wired different) argument. However, upon closer reading it is clear that author is saying that in many cultures women are taught/raised in a manner that would make debate unappealing to them. To some extent this is a problem. Many women say that debate didn’t feel right for them initially because they had been taught to be quiet and timid and agreeable. If you’ve ever had a girlfriend that refused to contribute to picking a place to eat, and acted passive aggressively when you picked the wrong place, then you have experienced the results of this social conditioning. However, this isn’t a reason to throw up our hands and say recruiting women for debate is a hopeless endeavor because their parents/society raised them differently. We just need to find ways to recruit and retain despite the social conditioning and then methods of deprogramming what appear to be bad debate habits.

  8. John Smith

    It is interesting to look at the relative success of all-boys private schools vs. their female equivalents-look at semis at the TOC last year-two all boys schools-Damien and Bellarmine. A lot of the private schools which have the resources to be able to compete at the top, are, all boy schools, and that might contribute to what is being discussed. Also, on a side note-look at the top four in the Baker last year-Top was boy girl, second was boy girl, third was boy boy, fourth was girl girl.

  9. Sam Greenland

    Two quick thoughts: there is a great deal of variation in gender representation in other formats of debating, particularly when one steps outside the USA. I agree largely with Whit’s statement that the “gender” question is one of social conditioning rather than of any innate biological “wiring”, and this is borne out by much of the recent pedagogical study into perceived gender differences in the classroom. However, since there are plenty of oppositional debating formats at which female debaters excel in equal numbers to male debaters, it cannot be the basic notion of debating per se that is the cause of the problem.

    The other is to take issue with Gulakov’s conclusion that debate does not stand up well as a pedagogy when teaching students to engage in democratic discourse (or indeed in other subject areas). With sound pedagogical implementation, it has been shown to accelerate development of critical thinking and analysis skills, and moreover to stimulate students’ interest in a subject and excite them in a way that precious few other methodologies do. If this is of interest to folk, I’ll happily post full references to those studies (which I don’t currently have at my fingertips), but would direct you to Zohar & Nemet (2002), Kennedy (2007), and Jerome & Algarra (2005) by way of starters…

  10. SS

    I think not only is it interesting that only men have commented but the title of the article “The Success of Women in Debate: Are We Slipping?” is even more interesting. Wouldn’t “we” imply the author was a women? But the author is not….
    Debate makes it harder for women to stay in debate when those awarded speaker awards are consistently their counterparts. If your not winning, why stay in the game?

  11. Michael Antonucci

    I'll make my point more explicit.

    I think a tiny, tiny fraction of women read or comment on this entire SITE, SS. I struggled to find one comment. (I did, though.) They didn't see Whit's thread because they don't comment on the 3NR much at all. They aren't lead authors, they don't have guest essays, they aren't prominent commentators. The skew is more extreme here than it is in actual debate.

    I don't want to draw out explicitly what presentational and rhetorical choices might condition this skew. Really, though, it's not that hard to figure some out.

  12. Roy Levkovitz

    No female has to my knowledge submitted a guest essay that has been rejected. I'm not sure the fact that females haven't commented on this thread is a sign women aren't reading / participating in the 3nr. I could track e-mail subscriptions to see what the ratio is of easily identifiable e-mail addresses but that is alot of work. I know based on the facebook group, twitter subscribers and comments I've heard that our female listener/ reader group is pretty good. People choose to comment or not comment on posts for their own reasons.

    I'm not so sure the 3nr is too different from edebate, looking at the October archives female posts are wayyyy less prevalent there then men.

    Whit posted the same message to edebate and there was one female reply, and that post was explicitly about female results at the first 3 college tournaments. That would concern me more then HS students and coaches not responding to the post on the 3nr

  13. Michael Antonucci

    I have seen more contributions numerically from women on the NDCA list and ( has historically drawn an enormous amount of traffic, however, so the ratio might be the same as a percentage.) I know that I've read female-authored editorials on the NDCA website.

    E-debate is generally a wasteland these days – contributions have largely narrowed to perhaps ten individuals.

    Despite personal investments, though, I think it's worthwhile to reiterate the question.

    Why is female participation – either in this forum or in forums more generally – actually proportionately *less* than female participation in policy debate generally?

    As a man, I do not feel that I'm socially positioned to provide answers, but I think that the question is important.

  14. andrew

    antonucci: it's ironic, because you're asking a question that can only be answered by a woman on a board where no woman ever visits.

  15. random college debat

    Why don't more women comment here? Well, I can't speak for all women, but I can say why *I* don't comment here. The last time I commented here, with what I offered as a sincere comment, it got shut down and my motives were called into question. Since I have little time to waste arguing on the internet with people who assume the worst of my intentions (school and debate take up enough time), I haven't bothered to comment since.

    I attribute this less to sexism than to zealousness. Many of the bloggers on this site are very sure that the changes they're pushing are best for debate – they assume that it's possible to identify the best debate practices and that divergence from their opinion means pushing a worse form of debate. That's not always bad, but it is bad when it manifests as hostility. The perception of hostility can drive away people who had marginal interest in commenting before – if your goal is more comments from more people, checking your tone by asking yourself if your comment is motivated out of an attempt to understand the reasons people have for disagreeing, so that you can persuade them of the merits of your idea, or if your comment is motivated out of an attempt to apply your superior argumentative skills to shred the credibility of the opposition, would probably go a long way.

    As for the larger question of women in debate…

    I agree with SS in that I sometimes wonder if speaker points are influenced by gender. I think about this when speaker awards are announced, and when I go over dump sheets. But I think it's bigger than competitive success. I think we can all ask ourselves, whatever our role in the activity (student, judge, coach): Do you think about how your team environment might feel to women? Do you think about how the in-round environment shaped by you might feel to women? Do you mentor younger debate women? Do you do everything you can to recruit female debaters? And for people in charge of hiring, specifically: do you hire qualified female judges and coaches? I'm sure some people are asking these questions and doing their best to expand women's participation in debate (I know because I've met them and worked with them), but is everyone? Is there something you could do better (I'm sure there's something I could do better)?

    For me, it seems like it's often little things that made the difference. My high school team had more girls than guys because my head coach actively recruited girls (and guys) out of his introductory debate class who wouldn't have otherwise asked about the debate team. I wouldn't have debated in college, except for a lab leader who made an effort to convince me I, personally, could do it. My choice of schools was largely based on the warm reception I got from one team compared to a brush-off response from another. My transition to college debate was eased by an older female debater that made an effort to get to know me and be a safe person I could to talk to about anything. Feminist comments by both my high school and college coaches have stuck in my mind as evidence that they care about women in debate, and by extension, me. Comments by certain judges have also stuck in my head as being part of a sexist double standard – like when they tell my partner she's too aggressive in cross-x when I've seen male debaters get praised for the exact same. So think about it – what do the little remarks you make signal to the women you encounter in debate? What does the big picture of your words and actions say?

    Explanation for anonymity: I don't like to comment under my own name when I'm discussing the state of the debate community because I prefer to have these sorts of discussions in person. Some of you judge me, and I don't want your primary perception of me to be based on online comments which may or may not convey my thoughts effectively, especially on sensitive subjects like this.

    P.S. Are you sure I'm the first woman commenter on this thread? I can think of at least one female debater with the initials "SS"…

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