University debating, particularly in Australia, isn’t really what you would call conservative. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: debaters tend to be privilege-conscious, environmentally aware, and aggressively socially progressive.
Yet for what always struck me as an inclusive community, the grand final of the 2016 World Universities Debating Championships held over New Year’s in Greece had a glaringly backward tone. It wasn’t the speeches and it wasn’t the topic (whether the poor should attempt a Marxist revolution). It was the total absence of women speakers.
While the eight speakers in the final (from four teams) were undoubtedly fantastic debaters, the lack of women on the stage of the Thessaloniki Concert Hall reinforced an anachronistic image of the “gentleman’s sport”.
Further, only three of the 16 speakers in the semi-finals were women. There were only two women ranked in the top ten speakers of the tournament. At the previous world championships, there was one female speaker in the grand final and no women in the top ten. Top institutions like Harvard and Cambridge only sent one woman across three teams to represent them at the tournament this year.
The absence of women is symptomatic of a debating culture that continues to find the male voice more persuasive. In an often intimidating and exclusive space, it is all too common for women to suffer disproportionately. Further, ESL and EFL speakers face additional racial bias in scoring and adjudicating.
Anecdotal evidence suggests women are cut-off earlier when asking questions during speeches (which is permitted in the Worlds style of debating), creating an advantage for men who are more able to control the debate. Yet women also feel pressured to avoid being “too assertive” if they adopt a similar strategy. This patriarchal bias consistently reduces the ability of women to succeed in competitive debating.
While there are a handful of women who have achieved great success, the middle of the field continues to be overwhelmingly dominated by men.
A potential remedy for the underrepresentation of women at Worlds is an affirmative action policy, similar to that of the major Australasian tournament, which mandates that one third of participants from each university be women. Perhaps not coincidentally, one third of the Grand-Finalists in 2015 were women, but more importantly the overall numbers of women across teams was far higher.
Unfortunately, top universities in the North American and British Isles debating circuits have been notoriously hostile towards policies such as affirmative action (AA), concerned about the “disadvantage” they would face if they were forced to send supposedly unmeritorious female speakers.
Abigail McCarthy, a former Women’s Vice President of the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Association, suggests that policies like AA mean that “some men who are doing well now need to accept they’ll be pushed out of the highest ranking teams”.
The suggestion that there aren’t enough capable women to fill teams is patently false.
If you don’t have experienced women in your debating society then find them. Look for them. Train them. Create them. Hundreds of thousands of incredibly intelligent, passionate and articulate women attend universities all over the globe. They deserve to be given the same opportunities to succeed, and as almost any debater could tell you, to correct their disadvantage that opportunity should not be a strictly “equal” one.
Affirmative action at the World Championship level won’t cripple the quality of debating. It will almost double the talent pool available, and form part of the structural change necessary to redefine this centuries old “gentleman’s sport”.