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How to Break at an International (and break barriers): Women’s Edition

Author(s): Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair, Dee Courtney, Emma Lucas, Gigi Gil, Hannah Beresford, Olivia Sundberg Diez, Srishti Krishnamoorthy-Cavell
Tags: Improvement, Tactics
July 28, 2017, 12:27 a.m.

We at the EUDC Training Centre are aware that women face specific barriers in debating. While some may only be overcome years from now when society gets its act together, some can be mitigated, if not entirely broken.

A group of female trainers put together this list of barriers to success in debating, along with the reasons we believe they exist and what you can do to overcome them. These methods will not work for everyone, and you shouldn’t blame yourself if they don’t work for you. Remember that as a female debater there are plenty of resources available to you, whether in the form of coaches, mentors and Facebook groups, and that you should always feel able to ask for help.

It is worth bearing in mind throughout this note that judges, coaches and men on the circuit have a huge responsibility to fight sexism on the circuit by judging fairly and giving equal opportunities to women. This note is a collection of methods with which to fight your corner, but it is not and should not be used as a reason for anyone to believe that the barriers are no longer there.

We hope that female speakers and other speakers who face barriers will benefit from this, but this note also addresses ways in which societies, coaches and male debaters can help to break barriers. This note should be read by as many people as possible and used as a resource by whoever finds it useful: that will hopefully include speakers, judges and coaches.

What we consider a ‘good speech’ is tied up in qualities that are largely considered male.

Why is this an issue?

Confidence, eloquence and intelligence are qualities that more likely associated with men than with women. Moreover, where a man is called passionate a woman might be called shrill, and when a man is called confident, a woman might be called aggressive.

These problems are exacerbated by the limited number of prominent female speakers, meaning that a ‘good female speech’ is an even narrower category into which every woman feels she needs to fit in order to succeed.

How can you fight this?

Step 1 (for speakers): Find your own voice and style.

  • Finding your style is an important part of speaking because it helps you get comfortable and confident in debates. Try out different styles and see what makes you feel confident. Take feedback on your style of course, but don’t let a judge or coach pidgeonhole you into what they think the typical ‘good female debater’ is.
  • Don’t feel you have to speak exactly like other successful women in order to do well: you don’t have to be angry or loud, but if you want to be, own it and don’t let anyone talk you down.

Step 2 (for judges): Check yourselves.

  • Ask yourself: When was the last time you gave a female speaker a speak of over 85? Have you ever given a female speaker a speak that high? How many men have you done this for? If you are uncomfortable with your answers to these questions, you may need to take a look at how you award speaks.
  • Have you ever found a female speaker to be ‘annoying’, ‘shrill’ or ‘aggressive’? Consider the metrics you apply to speaking style, and make sure you are giving female speakers the same chance to impress you.
  • When you think of a good speech, who do you think about? Do you find yourself comparing every speaker you see to that one great debater you idolise? If the all the names popping into your head are male, try to think about amazing female speakers you’ve seen and acknowledge that not every great speech comes with a male-sounding voice.

Women are often less confident when they speak.

Why is this an issue?

Women tend to have less confidence than men in general. This is especially true in debating, where intelligence, ‘well-spokenness’ and persuasiveness are valued, because these are qualities we subconsciously attribute to men.

Though we don’t like to admit it, style is a factor in BP debating, especially when it comes to speaks, and confidence hugely impacts that.

How can you fight this?

Step 1: Never undersell yourself in a debate.

  • Never saying things like ‘Well I’m not sure where I’m going with this but we’ll see!’ or ‘Ha ha, I know nothing about the Euro but here goes!’
  • Never put your head in your hands, mouth ‘sorry’ at your partner or signal in any other way that you’ve given up.
  • Never, ever apologise for your speech. This is your seven minutes; people owe you the courtesy of listening, even if you’re nervous or inexperienced or wrong. You do not have to apologise for speaking, and nor should you.

When you do things like that, everyone hears, but more importantly, you hear. You convince yourself more and more that your arguments won’t win, that makes you make them less well, and that self-fulfilling prophecy continues to hurt your confidence and therefore your arguments.

Secondly, judging is usually very time restricted and often judges will try to save time by agreeing on who took the fourth before quickly moving on; it’s much easier for judges to justify to themselves that they’ve giving the fourth fairly if the team they’re giving it to seems to think they already lost.

Step 2: Fake it til you make it. If you’re not confident, pretend to be until you get there. Acting a certain way can help instill those feelings in yourself for real.

  • Speak slowly, loudly and clearly. If you rush or let yourself get muddled, you’re more likely to get nervous, and judges are more likely to perceive you as such.
  • Act confident. Say ‘this is the case’ or ‘it is a fact’, not ‘I think’.

Step 3: Relax. This is easier said than done, but there are some ways to make the room seem less intimidating.

  • Remember that you’re just speaking to a group of people, often as small as 12. If that doesn’t help, pick a friendly face on the panel or in the crowd and speak to them.
  • Listen to the all-male teams who scare you because they sound like they know what they’re talking about and imagine their arguments being said by someone you’re less unnerved by. Remember that these people aren’t necessarily more intelligent than you, more knowledgeable than you, or better than you.

Female debaters tend to have few, if any, successful female role models or support systems in their institution.

Why is this an issue?

A lack or small number of successful female speakers in an institution can reinforce other gendered barriers, including the valuing of normatively masculine manners of speaking, not knowing where to look for advice on style or advice that is specific to the experience of speaking while female.

Secondly, there do often tend to be a few women at or near the top of a tab while men occupy the next 50 places on tab. This can make it harder to see incremental progress because your only role models are the best in the world rather than being closer to your level.

Finally, a lack of female role models or a lack of female speakers in general within an institution can increase the likelihood for women to leave debating because they don’t feel they belong there.

How can you fight this?

Step 1: Look outside your society for role models and allies.

    Choose to watch the outrounds at IVs that have female speakers, watch videos of finals on Youtube, find online workshops given by women or find any other source of successful women. This could help with your style, content or even just in building confidence and being able to see yourself as having potential.

    Take advantage of the support networks you have access to: the women’s officers at Worlds, the women on the coaching teams of Euros, and the Friendly Cave and Holiday from the Patriarchy Facebook groups, among other things.

    Make friends with women you speak against or judge with, and build up a support network if one doesn’t naturally exist at your institution. If you don’t feel at home in your institution, that doesn’t mean you can’t feel at home in debating.

Step 2: Try to bring more successful women into contact with your society, even if temporarily.

  • If your society needs a new coach, suggest women to your institution for the role, even if they aren’t originally from your society. Depending on your location, there could be plenty of women living locally who are qualified to coach.
  • If you can’t get a permanent coach, ask women to come into your society for workshops. Even one workshop can help encourage female speakers and address their concerns; women in debating workshops have been successful at a number of institutions and can be a great way of encouraging participation.
  • Bring female CAs and tabmasters to your institution for IVs. You can ask them to give workshops and assist in training women at your institution to CA, tab and judge.

Women are passed up for pro-ams and other development opportunities.

Why is this an issue?

Men are more likely to have succeeded at schools’ debating, meaning they often come into college with pre-ordained reputations. They are also more likely to know the people in their society, fitting into the social side much more easily.

There also tend to be more established male speakers in a society, and men tend to be more likely to ask other men to speak together. All-male partnerships are very common, and that includes pro-ams, especially those with school students.

How can you fight this?

Step 1 (for pros): Speak with women!

  • For men, ask yourself: when was the last time you spoke with a female partner, especially a female am? What percentage of your partners are women, and what percentage are ams? If the answer to any of these questions makes you feel defensive or embarrassed, you should change your tack and offer pro-ams to female speakers.
  • For women and non-binary people, ask yourself: do you feel confident about giving pro-ams, or do your confidence issues make you think that your pro-am won’t be worth it for the am? Remember that not every pro needs to be a WUDC finalist, and you DO have valuable things to offer – whether it be knowledge, experience or just a friendly face in debating.
  • Much of the problem begins in schools, where fears, stigmas and interests are formed for the first time. Be cautious of only promoting, coaching or pro-amming male school students at the expense of female school and university students.

Step 2 (for ams): Be proactive, and try to find opportunities for yourself if you aren’t offered one.

  • Try to ask pros if you can. Don’t be afraid to look outside your own society if you don’t have supportive people within it. The very worst someone can say is no, and since every speaker has received help in the past, most are very willing to help.
  • If you don’t want to ask individuals for a pro-am that is understandable, but you can still be proactive. Does your society have a centralised pro-am programme to match pros with ams? If so, sign up! And if not, suggest that system to the auditor or debates convener. They may well be willing to set one up.

Women tend to respond worse to aggressive coaching strategies and are likely to be treated more poorly over perceived knowledge gaps.

Why is this an issue?

Coaches sometimes berate speakers for not knowing enough or not succeeding enough. Because of general trends towards giving men more credit or the benefit of the doubt, this often falls disproportionately on female speakers.

Women are more likely to internalise feelings of worthlessness and then fulfill the prophecy that they are worse at debating. It is also disheartening to be in the lower half of tab for a very long time (even though this is perfectly natural for most beginners) and thus think that coaches being rude is a legitimate response.

How can you fight this?

Step 1 (for societies and coaches): Take feedback on your society’s coaching and be prepared to hear that it isn’t working.

  • Seek out feedback from women.
  • Coaches need to be ready to hear that their strategy isn’t working and is turning people off speaking, if that is the case.
  • Always remember that competition is great, but pointless if speakers stop enjoying or wanting to compete.

Step 2 (for speakers): Don’t be afraid to give that feedback to your coaches and tell them what is or isn’t working for you.

  • Remember that it is your coach’s job to help you improve, and if they aren’t they should be keen to hear your feedback.
  • Remember that your coach is fallible, and that you not knowing enough is not an excuse for misogyny or bullying.

Women are less credited when judging than men.

Why is this an issue?

Female judges have their calls questioned more often. Female chairs also find that teams are more likely to interrupt them halfway through explaining the call, and male panelists are more likely to interrupt them or be visibly annoyed when asked not to interrupt.

This is most likely because women tend to be interrupted and talked over in society in general, and debating is no exception. This is probably also exacerbated by confidence issues when female judges give calls apologetically or hesitantly, giving speakers or wings an excuse to derail the adjudication on the basis that the judge ‘doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’

How can you fight this?

Step 1: Have confidence in yourself.

  • Remember that it is the responsibility of the teams to convince you as a judge, that there are often multiple perfectly legitimate calls, that you are doing everyone a favour by taking your free time to go and judge them for free.
  • When you are chairing, remember that the CA team have put you in that position for a very good reason, and do not allow that reason to be diminished in your mind. The same applies to when you break as a judge.

Step 2: Do not take nonsense from teams.

  • You should absolutely accept reasonable criticism and questions from teams, because it can help you learn and, crucially, because a team may be legitimately calling you out on a bias.
  • However, if a team is shouting at you, interrupting you, intimidating you or otherwise making it impossible to do your job as a judge, you are NOT obligated to sit there and take it. Assert your position as the chair and, more importantly, a human being, and demand that the teams give you some respect.
  • This also applies to wings giving individual feedback: you are taking extra time out of your competition to help a team get better, and you have the right to demand a level of respect from them in that conversation.
  • If you feel too intimidated to do that, which is completely understandable, do not hesitate to contact the equity or CA team. It will hopefully feel better to get the situation resolved, and it will also hopefully make sure that the team doesn’t treat other female judges like this.

Female debaters often experience negativity around their ability.

Why is this an issue?

Unfortunately, women’s achievements in any field are undervalued and dismissed by their peers. This is often because high-achieving women make men feel threatened, and other women feel insecure and competitive.

Each of the people contributing to this note had experienced this in one form or another, and we are sure this is true for the majority if not for every successful female speaker. So the first thing to remember about this is that if it’s happening to you, you’re not on your own.

How can you fight this?

Step 1: Try not to internalise these statements.

  • It can be horrible to hear that your first break, first international break or first out-round chair was not earned, but someone saying that does not make it true. Remember how you felt when you were handed the trophy or when your name came up on the draw, not how you felt when you heard someone bad-mouthing you.
  • If this happens to you, speak to other female debaters and ask about their experiences; you’ll see that it has happened to pretty much everyone. Getting support and respect from the female debaters who have gone through the same thing can be a great way to avoid internalising these feelings.

Step 2: Don’t engage in sexism, and call it out wherever you see it.

  • It may be disappointing to lose out on a break or judge break, but do not use this as a reason to deride female speakers who very deservedly made it there. Don’t claim that a woman broke because she was the CA’s girlfriend or because her partner carried her. Don’t rubbish the ability of any speaker who has been successful, and acknowledge that this happens to women more often.
  • When you hear that a female speaker didn’t deserve to break, question that statement and call it out. This can be intimidating and difficult, but the circuit won’t change unless these kinds of statements get questioned.

Women, particularly women in the ESL category, are often told that their achievements are due to their status and not their skill.

Why is this an issue?

This can delegitimise the female role models we all rely on to look up to, because it feeds into a belief that when you see a successful female debater being given CA-ships, especially if they are ESL, it seems like an affirmative action move.

It also affects the confidence of women when judging and CA-ing, because we begin to feel as if we should not be in those roles and only got them because of our gender or language status.

How can you fight this?

Step 1: Don’t internalise this and know the reasons you were picked.

  • Think about the amazing women and ESL speakers around you and the ones you look up to: have you ever said this about them? And if not, why would you allow yourself to say it about you?
  • Ask for feedback from the CAs who have broken you or the conveners who selected you as a CA. They had good reasons for selecting you and you might benefit from hearing those reasons.

Step 2: Don’t participate in this behaviour.

  • The next time you hear yourself say ‘she’s the one they got to fill the woman/ESL quota’ or ‘they needed an ESL woman on the CA team’, think about that person’s debating achievements and ask yourself if it’s fair to single them out. Why single them out for CV scrutiny?
  • If you feel you’ve been passed up for an opportunity because of a quota or notion that a woman was needed to balance the gender on a team, acknowledge the other reasons that person may have been chosen over you and work hard at getting another opportunity: there are a lot of them out there and putting someone else down won’t help you achieve success.

We hope this note helps you, but we also welcome feedback and will happily come back to the drawing board if we’re given more questions to answer or more concerns to deal with.