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.