Community Resolution #4: Gender in Debate by Sunhee Simon

SunHee Simon is a LD curriculum director at VBI. She is currently a junior at Stanford University and coaches here and there.

Resolved: The debate community needs to move past the age of cis-gendered, male dominance in debate.

Over the past few years, there have been an outpour of discussions about women in debate. We’re seen statistical analysis about retention and competitive success[1], we’ve had narratives, we’ve had potential remedies[2] [3]. These discussions have been essential in creating conditions for women to feel like they belong in debate. However, we have so much more work to do. Additionally, we need to start expanding this conversation to gender in debate. Those operating outside of the gender binary find a hard time being visible in the activity for a variety of legitimate reasons. Debate, like any institution, prefers digestible debaters. This ends up harming everyone in the activity but especially those who identify as anything but a cis man.

Before going any further into our student solutions, it’s important to know what cis-gender means. A quick google search will tell you the term is “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex”. For example, if your birth certificate has “M” in the sex section and you identify as a male, you are a cisgender man. Likewise, if your birth certificate has “F” and you identify as a female you are a cisgender woman. Occasionally, you may see the term shortened to “cis” (like when I said “cis man” above).

With that being said, let’s move onto some student suggestions surrounding gender in debate.

1. Pronouns

“Normalizing pronouns- every time you introduce yourself you tell people your pronouns.” – Anonymous

Here’s something on the individual level that can be done. For those who have never done this or seen it be done, an easy way to do this is during an introduction (example: Hello, my name is SunHee and I use she/her and they/them pronouns). Respecting pronouns should be a must in our community. I’d add an amendment to our student suggestion. You do not have to tell people your personal pronouns if you don’t want to—for some in certain contexts, this disclosure can be harmful to their safety or well-being. However, if someone tells you their pronouns you should absolutely respect them. Likewise, if you are unsure how to refer to someone, use “they”, their name, or, if both parties are comfortable, simply ask what they prefer.

It is not up to you to say things along the lines of “what do you mean she, aren’t you a boy” or “they is grammatically incorrect” or “ze? What is that?” Likewise, it is not funny to scoff at how someone decides to identify. Similarly, it is wrong to brush off someone’s attempts to disclose this information or correct you if you call them by the wrong pronoun. You may not find pronouns important in your life, but for many people they matter. If you want to learn more about pronouns and or gender fluidity, check out this great NY Times article[4]. There’s also this cool practice[5] tool if you want to apply what you’ve learned or teach other community members about understanding pronouns.

2. Stereotyping

“The community needs to stop normalizing simple things like female stereotypes (such as attire or pitch) and take small steps to work towards leveling the playing field for all debaters of all identities.” – Brandon Wu

Stereotypes are incredibly harmful. Our interactions with each other are influenced by and continue to shape our community norms. For a long time, we have normalized certain expectations of what being male or female presenting in debate is. Male-presenting debaters are expected to speak with confidence, may be justifiably aggressive, and maintain logic. Female-presenting debate are criticized for having shrill voices, wearing the wrong outfits, sounding bossy, and being too emotional. For girls in debate, inconsiderate comments from judges and debaters talking about them behind their backs have both implicitly and explicitly allowed for stereotyping to continue.

One way to combat these stereotypes is by calling people out. If you hear you friends making fun of a female debater for having a high-pitched voice, tell them why that’s a messed up thing to do. If you hear them making fun of someone identifying as gender neutral, don’t laugh along. Legitimize that identification. Take it seriously.

The next step is promoting accountability. This step is for our older community members who are judges, teachers, and coaches. You have the authority to call out a judge who is out of line when dealing with girls in debate. You also should educate somehow who does not respect the pronouns of the children they are working with. These are formative years. What you say and how you respond matters!

Finally, recognize the harm that stereotyping does not only who those who are female but everyone who does not conform to what is typically understood as masculine. For example, boys in debate who do not exhibit “dominant” characteristics may be scripted in bigoted ways. Likewise, those who refuse to ascribe to being a boy or girl in debate have an even harder time since this difference is already not discussed nearly enough. Nip stereotypes in the bud. Gender is nuanced. People are nuanced.

3. Team Building & Leadership

“1. Taking leadership at debate society to embrace more female debaters, especially novices; 2. Raise awareness about implicit bias; 3. Reaching out to people when in need; 4. Have an open mind!” – Shiyang (Amy) Wang

Moving more specifically to women in debate again, one of the biggest problems is retention. For example “women who debate at least once as sophomores are 2.5 percentage points less likely than men to debate as juniors”. Coupled with a significant win-loss gap, it is difficult to keep girls in debate. As a result, team culture becomes an important tool to combat this problem.

Amy’s suggestions are spot on. Leaders of debate teams must take initiative and actively seek out female debaters. You aren’t looking for TOC winners—although who knows who you may fine. Rather, you should be looking for young girls who need a space where they can have a voice. Novices are the future of debate programs. Especially knowing the likelihood of debaters leaving before they become varsity members, overcompensate and push for more girls on the debate team.

Additionally, don’t just care about this issue only on the novice level. Have more girls in positions on the debate team like captain, treasurer, vice president, and so on. This will give novices coming in someone to look up to, create leadership that challenges implicit biases that find comfort in male-dominated leadership, and also allows for girl team members to call the shots on these initiatives.

That’s all for this week but there are so many more ways to tackle issues surrounding gender in debate. There are also so many intersections when looking at gender as well so we need our solutions to be adaptive (ie: how does this conversation apply to the experiences of men of color, openly queer folx, or rich white women in the activity). I hope this is a good start to expanding how we talk about it.

EDIT: On the subject of pronouns, tabroom has a feature for the pronouns you’d like the have used in round. It comes up on the pairing so everyone has this information and can move forward. This is an easy way to normalize pronouns at minimum inconvenience. Check it out!

Read the previous resolution here.