Women in Debate Update: Part II

This series will address the issues that women in debate face, as well as the progress that they have made. It will be split into two parts: part one will encompass background on the issue as well as individual observations and experiences, while part two will cover implementable policies and advice for debaters, judges, coaches, and tournament and camp directors. Part II features articles and testimonies from Bekah Boyer, Tim Mahoney, Cynthia Timmons, Rebecca Kuang, and the directors of VBI, NSD, and UNT, as well as information about Annie Kors’ exciting new tournament safety initiative. The article for part I can be viewed here.

Table of Contents

On the Front Lines – Bekah Boyer

Debate Matters Update

Policies for Debate Camps to Adopt – Contributions from directors of VBI, NSD, and UNT

Recruiting Female Judges to Tournaments – Tim Mahoney

Practical Steps to Address Women’s Issues in Speech and Debate – Cynthia Timmons and Bekah Boyer

Conclusion – Rebecca Kuang

On the Front Lines

By: Bekah Boyer

I was never a great debater; my butt was constantly whupped by those who worked harder than I did. Coincidently, that self-same butt was apparently more interesting to some people in the community than my identity. I was harassed, insulted, and demeaned by members of my own team and others. Sometimes the harassment was as trivial as offensive humor (“go make me a sandwich”), but often, tasteless jokes escalated to demands for sexual favors in exchange for a card the boys were already sharing. Troubled, alone, and unsure what to do, I spun into a depression. I wasn’t a lone wolf; I just had no one in whom to confide. Thankfully, an adult in the community noticed that I wasn’t doing well. She kept me from quitting debate or doing anything drastic because of a fleeting feeling.

I got help. The kicker is, I had to tell an adult first.

My story, though personal, is not rare. Boundaries aren’t always clearly defined between competitors or between students and adults. From jokes about a creepy judge’s “leg paradigm” to sexist comments to a young student I know of who survived a tragic assault at a summer institute, many women in debate have experienced sexism in some form.

Adults in the community have a responsibility as educators and as chaperones, ethically and legally, to support kids. I would like to say that my trials ended when I was handed a diploma, but overt and discreet harassment has continued into my career as a coach and a judge. These daily struggles require the support of my colleagues, too.

We have too much groupthink in debate: we cannot let someone who is suffering fall to the wayside because of the bystander effect. As adults we must take responsibility and notify people who can make the problem right. Although an event may have occurred within the debate community, we must keep in mind that we are not a sovereign nation: there is a “debate world” and a “real world,” but the two are linked. While debate rounds are not the ideal forums for issues such as these, the debate community must still address the issues—but how?

Coaches should work closely with their schools’ guidance counselors. Debaters are smart kids, and smart kids are generally more vulnerable. We have to remember that these young adults look up to adults more than we as coaches expect. They have real-life problems, and unless you are trained to handle that, you need to work with someone who is.

If someone decides to share a story in a debate round in the form of a narrative, judges should inform the adult in charge of that student and ensure that student knows what options are available.

Tournaments hosted at schools can easily include cards detailing local resources for confidential and legal reporting of assault and harassment in the registration packet. To show exemplary responsibility for the well-being of competitors, they can encourage their guidance counselor or a representative of an assisting organization to be available at the tournament so help will be on hand if necessary.

In addition to having a licensed counselor on staff, camps can create anonymous exit surveys for attendees to report instances in which they were threatened or felt unsafe. Exit surveys are another opportunity to distribute information about local and national resources for victims of sexual harassment or assault.

If judges hear about an instance of sexual harassment or violence in a round, they should figure out if another adult knows what has happened. They can then take steps to ensure that the right people know what to do. There is no confidentiality clause in debate. Most rounds are explicitly open to the public. Protect yourself and the kids you have judged by reporting.

The next step is to encourage your coaches, judges, schools, and opponents to follow these measures or any others that may come up in the conversation surrounding this issue. Sadly, most instances of sexual assault are committed by people known and trusted by the victim. We need to take proactive steps both to reduce incidents and to heal as a community.

If you, or someone you know, is a victim of sexual or gender-based violence, please tell someone who can help you. You are not alone. Here are some resources at your disposal:

  • Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network: http://www.rainn.org/ get-help/national-sexual-assault- hotline or call 1-800-656-HOPE
  • To seek multidisciplinary training on this issue: visit SATI at http://www.mysati.com
  • Or select a local center: http://centers.rainn.org
  • Your local Planned Parenthood and your computer browser are always good places to start!

We are all thankful for speech and debate. We believe in its power to transform individuals and society. We also believe that complacency and ignorance of the status quo contributes to real obstacles to full participation by young women. Through awareness and education, we can work together as a community to remove barriers, whatever they may be.

Originally published in the Fall 2013 Rostrum, a publication of the National Speech & Debate Association (National Forensic League).

Debate Matters Update

In November of 2013, Annie Kors, a senior at the Harvard-Westlake school, launched a new project called Debate Matters. The initiative is designed to improve safety for contestants at debate tournaments by proposing effective tournament safety guidelines and compiling and posting results on how tournaments meet these guidelines. 

Some notable guidelines include:

  • Hiring “unaffiliated” or “non debate” judges takes place well in advance – Where college tournaments may work with a communications department to use student judges, the tournament director should have affirmative acknowledgment that the person being hired is safe to be around students. The use of an “all call” or “we’ll hire anyone” is strongly discouraged. The tournament director should be absolutely comfortable in trusting every judge that may be used. This person will be alone with students for many hours.
  • Strict ballot table instructions: The ballot table can only give ballots to people on a list pre approved by the director or someone in charge somewhere.
  • Tab rooms should know and have a record of who judged every round. The *actual* judge and affiliation should be noted on the ballot. This should be written by a tournament official at the ballot table.
  • It should be an expectation that people will be looking in on rooms – even if the tournament staff member believes the round is underway. There should be affirmative acknowledgment that round has started. The judge should see a tournament staff member has looked in. Judges should report to a tournament director if, in fact, their room was not checked. This could be the single most important check that can take place to deter an assault. It is the final line of defense a tournament has after the door has closed. This should be done for every single room for every single round and every single flight.
  • Arrangements should be made to keep open doors that may automatically lock. Someone without a key should be able to get in the room without someone on the inside letting them in.
  • A judge should never be in a room alone with a single student with the door closed.

So far, Debate Matters has published tournament results for 13 tournaments, ranging from Greenhill to Alta. You can read the full results here and the full safety guidelines here. In addition, Debate Matters relies on tournament survey participation, so fill out surveys for tournaments that you’ve attended here

Policies for Debate Camps to Adopt

Contributions from: The directors of VBI, NSD, and UNT

Top debate camps across the country are recognizing the importance of developing initiatives that improve conditions for women in debate. Some of the most exciting initiatives being implemented at the Victory Briefs Institute (VBI), National Symposium for Debate (NSD), and the University of North Texas Mean Green Workshops (UNT) are highlighted below.

1. Female Role Models and Counselors

“NSD has a longstanding commitment to hiring as many qualified female instructors as is feasible in any given year (given constraints related to interest in employment, scheduling conflicts, and so on).  We are also committed to retaining as many experienced female instructors as possible in part because we hope to keep more former female debaters involved in the activity as coaches (and we have tried to assist these instructors in finding coaching jobs each year, as needed).” – Eric Palmer (Director, NSD)

The Director of Residential Life is a retired female teacher whose sole job is to provide a nurturing environment for all students.” – Aaron Timmons (Director, UNT) 

“We’ve generally made efforts to make sure labs are gender balanced, which I think does a lot to further supportive communities that can develop at camp. We also showcase female debaters in demo rounds – we’ve made particular efforts to make sure top female debaters participate in demo rounds for the rest of camp, which I think does a lot in terms of showing younger girls good role models in current debaters as well as instructors.” – Catherine Tarsney (Curriculum Director, VBI)

2. Harassment and Abuse Training and Policies

“Each faculty and staff member must successfully complete yearly training on recognizing, and understanding, the appropriate response to behavior or indicators that could be interpreted as child abuse.” – Aaron Timmons (Director, UNT) 

“When they arrive at camp, students are given packets detailing these rules and policies, and they are again emphasized at the student orientation assembly. Students are encouraged to raise any questions or concerns to any staff member with whom they feel comfortable so that we can ensure their safety and a high quality camp experience. As an additional precaution, we maintain an online forum where students can report bullying or harassment by anybody at camp. These submissions can be anonymous at the student’s discretion, and are initially sent only to the Director of Student Life and Victor Jih, the Managing Director of Victory Briefs.  Those individuals follow up on every submission and determine the appropriate course of action.” – Adam Torson (Curriculum Director, VBI)

We have a strict antiharassment policy that is inclusive of addressing “micro aggressions”. No bullying is tolerated.” – Aaron Timmons (Director, UNT)

“We have also never budged on a set of policies designed to prevent sexual harassment and assault.  We (a) require students to keep their dorm rooms open while anyone (staff or student) is in their room, apart from their roommate, (b) bar staff members from any romantic or sexual contact with students, on pain of termination of employment, (c) place male and female students on different floors of dormitory halls.” – Eric Palmer (Director, NSD)

While these are all great initiatives, more work still needs to be done. It is not atypical for the female to male staff ratio at camps to be worse than 1:3, and men still overwhelmingly dominate the activity. We’re moving in the right direction, but further improvement is still necessary. 

Recruiting Female Judges to Tournaments

By: Tim Mahoney

I believe that the under representation of women in the LD judging pool at the Heart of Texas debate tournament, that I direct, has been an increasing problem. For the 2013 tournament I began to attempt to resolve this problem with a very simple solution. I would hire three or four young women to judge the entire tournament. I went out of my way to find judges that I believed would be highly preferred and would be likely to judge most, if not all of the elims. I strove to treat these young women in such a manner (reasonable to high pay, full travel compensation, etc.) that they would develop a loyalty to judging at the Heart of Texas. My hope being that they will continue to attend far into the future even if their connection to the debate community diminishes. After year one I consider this pilot project to be an unqualified success. All of the young women I hired were highly preffed and judged throughout the elims. Only time will tell if this will result in long term success. I’m optimistic about the possibilities. Overcoming issues of under representation is not easy and this certainly isn’t a cure all. However, it is one small step in the right direction and I encourage other tournament directors facing similar issues to give this policy a try. 

Tim Mahoney

Director of Debate, St. Mark’s School of Texas

Director, 2013 Heart of Texas Invitational

Practical Steps to Address Women’s Issues in Speech and Debate

By: Cynthia Timmons and Bekah Boyer

Each coach has unique students and circumstances to deal with, but the following ideas can serve as a guide to approaching your team about difficult issues.

  • Start developing communication confidence in girls earlier. By high school, they may already be reluctant to develop their personal voice through forensics. This past year, our school started a debate club for 3rd and 4th graders two days a month after school. We had nearly 60 students join-–30% of the enrollment. It was an enormous success, but we did see subtle sexism, even in 3rd grade. The boys would try to dominate the girls by talking over them or laughing at them. By grouping the girls together, we learned that they are much more willing to express themselves and have already developed more confidence. This year we offered the program again to 3rd and 4th graders and added a 5th/6th grade level. Half of the participants are girls in the younger grades and one-third are girls at the upper level. We are grouping the students by gender for many of the activities and have already seen a positive difference in the participation by girls.
  • Provide female mentors. High school females can mentor young girls. Adult women can play that role for high school students. If you don’t have access to a female coach find a female faculty or staff member who can provide that assistance to the young women on your team.
  • Tournaments – recruit and assign female judges. Our top debater last year, a young woman, encountered 66 judges in elim rounds before February; only three of them were women. If true communication style differences exist between genders, then it is critical to provide judges who are familiar with the same style.
  • Institutes – recruit female lab leaders, both for their mentoring and to provide security. Young women away from home may be more reluctant to report any sexism they experience to young male lab leaders. Have specific policies in place to prevent sexism and to deal with it if it occurs. Hire more seasoned educators to work with high school students.
  • Adopt specific policies for your teams regarding sexism and any other form of discrimination or harassment. Set high expectations for your team members. Do not tolerate or participate in conversations or bantering that is demeaning to any group.
  • An analogy that may work is an athletic competition. In an athletic competition, opponents may exchange physical blows, blocks, hits, kicks, trips, etc., to keep the other player/team from scoring points. Debate competition, a competition of words, has the potential to be highly adversarial due to its win-loss parameters. Students may use their words to defend their positions or to attack an opponent in order to “score” points. While a physical blow may leave a bruise, it may also contribute to an incapacitating injury. Words can be equally destructive. When you add bright minds, a competitive atmosphere, high stakes, and a games- playing mentality, the arena is capable of producing destructive behavior.
  • All students need to be instructed on appropriate limits to discourse. Conversations may be had with sub- populations separated for ease of conversation and questions, but do not make the mistake of just “talking to the girls.” That sends a host of mixed messages to your team—none good. Instead, set parameters for appropriate behavior and discourse, consequences of not following boundaries, and an established method of recourse for infractions.
  • It is helpful to let students know that some “blows” arise from social awkwardness rather than ill intent. Students should know that they are entitled to stand up for themselves and draw boundaries, but it may help to know that someone is merely “clueless” rather than malicious. On the other hand, it is important to not minimize an incident that a student brings to you. In a world of the Internet and cyber-bullying, we cannot afford to dismiss events that students may carry with them long after the tournament.
  • Adopt the tactics of the anti-bullying programs. Stand up to sexist behavior you witness. If necessary, report inappropriate language and behavior to the appropriate authority. Enlist other women to help.

Originally published in the Fall 2013 Rostrum, a publication of the National Speech & Debate Association (National Forensic League).


By: Rebecca Kuang

It’s been a good year for women in LD with programs like Debate Matters and tournament directors across the country taking incredible measures to include more women in the judging pool. Groups like the LD Women’s Network and Debate Girls 2014 have created safe, inclusive spaces for young female debaters. The community has engaged in more civil, productive dialogue about challenges that women in debate face than I’ve seen in my (admittedly short) time in the activity.

While these are important and positive first steps, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the problem of sexism in debate has been solved—not by a long shot. It’s fantastic to see all of these movements springing up in the community, but they run the risk of convincing people that the problem has been solved—that sexism is over. The letters from Debate Girls 2014 and all-female teams give us great examples of welcoming, positive environments for women, but they don’t indicate that this is the case for all women in the activity. Statements from workshop and tournament directors tell us that institutions are amenable to change, not that their job is done.

In that vein, as the founder of Debaters Against Sexism, I ask you again to sign the pledge if you have not done so. If you have, send it to your novices. Each year brings another generation of debaters—our community is constantly growing, and it’s our obligation as older members to teach new debaters what is acceptable and what is not. The pledge, if it is to be effective, must remain at the front of our memory. I won’t see it fade into history as something that happened once in 2013. 

To sign the Debaters Against Sexism pledge, click here.

Rebecca Kuang and Annie Kors, cofounders of Debaters Against Sexism, were invited to speak at the 2013 NDCA Championships Award Assembly hosted at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. The NDCA Executive Board had previously voted on a 9-0 decision to become a signatory to the Debaters Against Sexism pledge, which was signed during the assembly.

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