An Open Letter About Subtle Sexism In Debate by Asher Bykov

Graphic by Grace Doyle and Areeba Amer of the Greenhill School.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.

Asher Bykov debated for Roslyn High School’s Speech and Debate Team for 4 years, where he held a leadership role for 3 years. Some of his major accomplishments include leading his Lincoln Douglas team to first place in New York State, reaching Lincoln Douglas finals of the New York State Forensic League Competition as a junior, receiving his school’s first TOC bid in Public Forum with his brother, and breaking at various national tournaments. Asher Bykov now runs The Debate Without Debate Podcast with his brother, Joseph Bykov, where they hope to break through their echo chambers by inviting extra-ordinary ordinary guests on to create a forum for deliberation without all the smoke and mirrors you see on the news. He will be attending Georgetown University in the fall.


As we drove home from the train station, I received a call from my elated brother, who won first place at a local tournament and qualified to States. “Yes!”

Waiting for my team to arrive at school, I could barely stand still. When the yellow school bus pulled into the circle and my teammates filed off, a large group of us celebrated. We gathered around laughing and high-fiving, congratulating the trophy-holders, but something wasn’t right: the two women who went to the tournament stood to the side, apart from the energetic group of guys that gathered around me.

After we got in the car to drive home, my friend poked my side. “Why didn’t you include the girls in your celebration? They are part of your team too you know.”

I got defensive. “I have no control over the situation. I’m just closer with the guys anyway.”

This interaction has stuck with me for the past year. It sticks because it represents my greatest shortcoming as a member and leader of my Speech and Debate team.

There are plenty of articles on the overt sexism that challenges the Speech and Debate community, as well as the workplace at large. However, there seems to be a lack of focus on an equally damaging form of discrimination: subtle sexism.

Jessica Bennett, journalist and author of Feminist Fight Club, defines subtle sexism as “things like being interrupted when you speak — something that happens twice as frequently to women as men — or being mistaken for the office secretary when you’re actually the one in charge. It’s the fact that women who lead are perceived as bossy or too aggressive, that when we negotiate for money we’re disliked (and less likely to receive said money), and when we ask for something twice we’re viewed as nags.” She also notes that “while overt sexism is inarguably bad and inexcusable, that doesn’t mean subtle sexism isn’t damaging—oftentimes it’s even more dangerous because it’s harder to document, and even harder to call out.”

Although Bennett focuses her conversations on the workplace, I believe the premise also applies to the Speech and Debate community. Subtle sexism in debate includes behaviors like cutting a woman off during a cross examination or an explanation of a decision (typically under the assumption that you are “simply more knowledgeable” or “a better debater” than she is), chastising the “showy-ness” (or lack thereof) of women’s clothing, and making sexual comments during practices. “When a woman walks into the debate space, she’s immediately judged for being too conservative in a dress or too promiscuous in a dress; there’s no gray area for us,” explained Kati Johnson, an accomplished debater from Texas. “When we’re ‘too nice’ outside of rounds or to judges, guys frequently label us as flirty and then talk about us behind our backs, oftentimes with objectifying rhetoric. When we succeed, we get labeled as one of the best girls in debate, not just one of the best debaters.”

In the excerpt from the beginning of this article, I was subtly sexist when I unconsciously excluded women on my team by only celebrating with my male teammates. As a leader, I had an obligation to encourage a collective group celebration, not reinforce separate, gender divided ones. I dropped the ball, failed to meet my duty. I also accept responsibility for the fact that I was likely subtly sexist in other incidents, some of which I may still be unaware of.

Now I am not here to bash on all men, nor am I here to make the assertion everyone is subtly sexist; however, we need to acknowledge that these problems exist and that they have more ramifications than we might think. Studies have shown that subtle sexism reduces performance, actively makes the environment feel uncomfortable, and, ultimately, drives women out of the workforce. Jessica Bennett equates this phenomenon with “death by a thousand cuts.”

In debate, this means, point blank, we are all worse off because of subtle sexism. Our teammates will feel out of place, our friends will be unable to reach their full potential, and we will lose valuable members of our community. Given the individualism encouraged by the competitive nature of some events in Speech and Debate, we can easily forget the importance of the collective aspect of our activity. At its core, Speech and Debate is better because we find our “team.” Whether you are a lone wolf who finds other independent debaters or are fortunate enough to have an established program at your school, when we work together, we can achieve far more than when we allow subtle sexism to fester and divide us.

In an ideal universe, debaters would only need to focus on debating. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world, but there are actionable steps we can take to stop subtle sexism and bring ourselves closer to equality.

So, what steps can we take to progress?

Recognize that subtle sexism is real. We can only solve a problem when we admit that there is a problem. If a member of your team brings up a complaint about a comment you or another member made, address it. We are all fallible, but don’t rush to brush these events aside because they will only build and breed toxicity.

Have an open conversation about subtle sexism. This year, I took time to sit down with my teammates to discuss the small things that we did, although sometimes unintentionally, that may have driven some women out of our club. It was also crucial for us to revisit women who left the activity to better understand their perspective. As much as men on the team can isolate what they think pushed women out of the activity, there is nothing more accurate than going directly to those affected. In my own school, these exercises led us to be one of the strongest teams on our local circuit, helped us break onto the national circuit, and has contributed to an increasing number of women in the club and its leadership. Even with our recent success, though, work is still required to ensure greater equality and representation in our club.

Men must hold themselves, as well as other men, accountable. Having conversations about subtle sexism and raising awareness of its effects means nothing if men are not willing to take it on themselves to make changes. In my case, this meant making an active effort to include women in our post-competition celebrations. For others, it may mean stopping jokes that make other members feel uncomfortable or calling other men out for their exclusionary behavior. It can be difficult to address these issues, especially when we have a personal connection to the situation. However, our first reaction should not be defensive. We ought to listen to others and become open to change.

Understand that it isn’t totally a “you” problem. Too often, I have heard that “men are the source of all of these issues” or “the activity would be much better without men.” While it is important for us to express our thoughts freely, these claims are frankly reductionist and threaten to reinforce subtle sexism. Breaking this system requires us to recognize that we are all responsible for subtle sexism, while also understanding that there are other societal factors at play. Now that we are aware of it, however, we have an obligation to flip the script, even if it involves hard conversations and bumps along the road.

On a more concrete level, I must re-emphasize the importance of women in leadership roles. All of the suggestions I mentioned previously materialize faster when women have opportunities to excel and lead an activity. Furthermore, a strong female leader(s) implicitly encourages more women to join the activity and reduces toxic masculinity on the team. She can act as a role model for other women and provide a unique perspective that results in positive change for a team. Ultimately, we cannot hope to address the problems associated with subtle sexism in this community if people are actively excluded from the conversation.


Author’s End Note:

This article is the result of a significant amount of time talking to my teammates, receiving constructive criticism, and self-reflection. Thank you to my friends who allowed me to highlight their experience in this piece and to those who helped me refine my message.

I recognize that non-binary and trans debaters are influenced by subtle sexism, but, as a cis-white-straight-male, I feel uncomfortable discussing a topic that I have no experience with. I welcome any suggestions from people more familiar with these experiences in debate.

Every situation is different and requires unique solutions, but I hope this piece can spark a larger conversation about this topic and its implications in the community.


Links and Resources:

Jessica Bennett Interview: https://goop.com/work/career/are-you-subtly-sexist-most-likely-yes/

Studies on subtle sexism: https://www.fastcompany.com/3031101/the-new-subtle-sexism-toward-women-in-the-workplace

From the Bennett quote: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0261927X14533197?papetoc=, http://gap.hks.harvard.edu/how-can-women-escape-compensation-negotiation-dilemma-relational-accounts-are-one-answer, http://www.womendontask.com/stats.html