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Seeking Representation in Male-Dominated Spaces: Women in Debate

It is no secret that debate teams in higher education have struggled with upholding equal representation of women and gender minorities. At Bates this is no exception. With incoming classes, the gender ratio is usually balanced in debate practices; however, after their first year many women decide to leave, shifting the balance. The reasons as to why these individuals leave are often due to complex, uncomfortable truths about today’s world. In search of how to address these problems, I spoke to current and former debate team members about their experiences with discrimination in the debate circuit.

I first spoke to former debate team member Trisha Kibugi ’21, who left debate during her sophomore year, after many of her other peers had left debate. For her, the few women remaining in debate are often tokenized as “diversity.” 

“So [people on the team will say] we’re not problematic because we have this one right here. And then they place the values on that team member based on them bringing diversity to that team rather than their skills. And then a lot of the work to make the team better is placed on the people who are affected by all of those things.”

While on the team, Kibugi worked as an equity officer. Part of her role as an equity officer was to investigate any claims of inappropriate behavior or reductive statements made in debate rounds. According to Kibugi, “For the past couple years [the equity officer] has been a woman of color. Which makes it even more difficult because when I was equity officer and when someone has an equity complaint against me, it’s like I’m investigating my own equity complaint which makes me even more vulnerable. I can’t really do anything about things that are done to me because I’m the person who is supposed to take care of those things, and it causes a circle.” Within discussions among fellow debate team members, Kibugi also found that her opinions were not held seriously. As she put it “I think it’s even worse for women of color, because we talk a lot about race and gender in debate and [people on the team] are not willing to take it from a woman of color…Like, it’s much worse when they talk about all these serious issues in such a skewed perspective… We’re always told to speak as if someone was present in the room and will hear you, but even that won’t stop people from saying really problematic things that are very based on stereotypes.”

Quotas for tournaments also factor into the discrimination felt by many women on the team. I spoke with the current president of the debate team, Lillian Chang ’20 to understand more about the effectiveness of equity measures in debate. “There is one tournament every year that’s like the world championship for debate,” said Chang. “It’s where all the major schools go…and they’ve instituted a quota for every school that one third of the people who you’re sending to debate have to be non cis men. This was implemented last year but they’ve been talking about it for multiple years.” 

According to Chang, the debate team has never needed to make decisions based off of this quota. Instead, candidates for debating abroad are evaluated through a trials process, in which team members debate and send footage to a third party to judge who made the best arguments. However, people will still assume that some are chosen because of their gender. This was the case for Chang in her sophomore year.

 “I was the only person picked off that initially and there was all this uproar that was like, ‘she’s not actually better, they just have to send her because of the quota’—even though the quota hadn’t actually been implemented yet…So that was super demoralizing because I felt that it undermined a lot of my ability.” 

Like Kibugi, Chang is cognizant of less experienced debaters’ tendencies to generalize and make reductive statements in debate rounds. She attributes this to many things, including the fact that Bates can be an echo chamber when debating about things like racism and sexism. This is compounded by the fact that debaters only have 15 minutes to prepare once they have heard the motion in Bates’ chosen form of debate. 

“[T]he thing about debate is that you don’t get time to look up things ahead of time, you’re just kind of going off of what you know, and often times if you don’t know things, you either make stuff up or you panic and say something. It turns into like a wild conversation where no one is objectively right because we don’t actually know what’s going on.” 

Another source on the debate team, who wishes to remain anonymous, stated that it is common for underclassmen on the team to forget themselves. As she put it, “I think the people who come into debate don’t necessarily recognize the space that they are occupying and aren’t really cognisant of that…[T]hey’re not bad people, it’s just like a lack awareness regarding privilege, which I think applies mostly to freshmen men, and I think if they improve and mature and grow to become better people—I think that’s a good thing to strive for.” 

There have been many measures to address inequality in debate. For one thing, upperclassmen women on the debate team actively try to create exclusive places for women and gender minorities on the team. This includes hosting weekly dinners, study sessions, and hanging out in each other’s rooms.

While it can be invalidating and taxing, there is a silver lining to debating in male dominated spaces. After one of her first tournaments, Bates Student staff writer, Khadeeja Qureshi ’23 felt more motivated than ever to outperform her male peers. During a tournament held at the University of Vermont, Qureshi and her partner, who was also a first-year, were placed against two Harvard graduate students from Germany and Australia. 

Recounting the experience, Qureshi said, “You can tell they really underestimate you as well, and I was talking to one of the people on debate and they were just like ‘yeah it’s statistically known that women get less speaker points’ and speaker points are supposed to be based off of arguments, not even based off of jargon or fancy schmancy sentence structure, but even judges have their biases.”

“However,” she continued, “At the same time, there’s something very addicting about debate as well. The fact that when I was there, I knew that this wasn’t a space made for me…and I wasn’t very represented that much in that space either…And, I knew that I wasn’t experienced, but even just like standing up there and saying ‘Yeah I’m debating in this round, yeah I can have a strong voice, like, yeah I’ll be just as loud as you are’ that just like says a lot to yourself and to other people that you’re not going to be intimidated or moved in this space.” 

Lastly, I spoke to the director of the debate team, Dr. Jan Hovden to hear her take on issues surrounding women in debate. In addition to debate, Hovden also works as a lecturer in Bates’ Rhetoric, Film, and Media Studies Department. 

To Hovden, a lot of the prominent issues in debate are also present in the workplace and other places in today’s society: “It’s just that debate is kind of… you can’t escape it, because of what’s happening in the rounds. You’re there, you know, and we have equity officers at all the tournaments, and we have equity officers on the teams that help negotiate some of those things, but they’re clearly reactionary to a certain extent.”

As to reasons why women choose to leave debate team, one prominent factor, according to Hovden, is the double standard held against “assertive” women. “Women struggle more in the activity in terms of being aggressive and assertive. When men do that it’s considered powerful, women do it, and too often they’re considered ‘bitchy’ or ‘shrill’…So there are just a number of barriers in the activity that women have to overcome that men don’t have to overcome and it’s probably the worst for gender minorities.” 

This double standard is a product of what Hovden calls “cultural lag,” a term coined by literary theorist, Kenneth Burke which is the idea of society clinging onto old values as major social changes happen in the world. Here, Hovden cited how women were not allowed to be credit card holders until 1970. “So if you think about that to where we are now, a lot of social change has certainly happened, but a lot of those ingrained beliefs are still passed down. And so even as each generation may try to remove some of those, they still hold on to a lot more of them just because that’s how they were raised, that’s what they’ve learned and it’s really hard to unlearn things…part of the reason it’s so hard to change your behavior and learn things is that it forces you to be self-reflexive and be willing to admit that ‘hey maybe I was not a good person in that situation, maybe I shouldn’t have done that and that’s hard.’”

Special thanks to Ben Klafter ‘21 for assisting me in interviewing these women.

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