Speak up! Lucy Russell reflects on why there are so few women in debating.
It’s difficult to discuss the lack of women in debating without first giving a bit of context as to what debating actually is. I’m more than aware it’s a somewhat niche pastime, the kind of hobby that adults tell you sounds ‘very exciting’ and your friends tell you is ‘quite intense’ and/or ‘really weird’. Debating occurs in many different fields, most notoriously in parliament. However, university debating is a kind of competitive ‘sport’, for want of a better word. It involves teams from different universities coming together to debate a series of random issues, and has a very low participation rate of women, especially at high levels, with most university competitions averaging between 25-30% women speakers.
These statistics can be attributed partly to a lack of interest on behalf of women students, but remain problematic when considered in relation to how we view women’s voices in general. The kind of skills gained from debating and public speaking are almost identical, and in the halls of the Oxford Union, it takes no time at all to find many male Conservative MPs listed among debating alumni, including the likes of Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
At Bristol Debating Union, we always recruit fewer women freshers than men, but what is interesting is that those women freshers we do recruit are also more likely to drop out over the course of the year, and less likely to put themselves forward for competitions. In some ways these problems are self-perpetuating; the male-dominated environment means that women often find themselves intimidated by being the only woman in the room, a situation that can be exacerbated by an all-male judging panel. The social experience within the university debating circle is also problematic, many of the most experienced debaters having already received coaching at their private schools, giving them an unfair advantage. The stereotype of debating being an activity mainly enjoyed by white public school boys is not entirely undeserved, and this in itself can be a huge deterrent for people who don’t fit into this privileged demographic.
Despite these restrictions, I do strongly believe that the debating community, at least at university level, is working very hard to correct such inequalities and make debating more accessible. There have been many initiatives aiming to give women more opportunities, with many universities running women’s and non-binary competitions, and major international competitions such as the World Universities Debating Competition introducing quotas. I have personally found the debating community to be an incredibly inclusive one, and have found gendered competitions a great way to meet and learn from older, more experienced women debaters. The fact that the community prides itself on being progressive means that on the whole it has very good safeguards in place to protect minorities, and plenty of opportunities for people of all backgrounds and genders.
Having said that, I recognise that the fact I started debating at a young age, at an all-girls school, means that I haven’t faced many of the same barriers to entry as others do. A general trend I notice with new women debaters is how much less confident they are than their male counterparts. In early sessions it is much more common for women students to ask to watch rather than speak, apologise during their speech or to their opponents, and predict that they placed lower in the debate than they actually did. Doing badly in a debate is something that people often take personally. They view it as an attack on their intelligence, and while lots of beginner debaters have this mindset, it seems that girls tend to be more fearful of being ‘wrong’.
The fact that university debating is judged in such a content-focused way has made us, as society leaders, much more aware of our implicit bias, exposing us to how things like style and delivery might skew our perceptions of someone’s speech. In other forms of public speaking, I have heard men told they sound ‘powerful’ and ‘commanding’ simply because of the tone of their voice, their stance or their mannerisms. Looking at how debating translates to the real world, it is easy to recognise the techniques of physical dominance and intimidation that Trump resorted to in his debates against Clinton, and to see how masculinity is associated with power and authority.
In a small community like debating it is much easier for us to identify these existing biases and call them out, but they are present everywhere. As soon as we start to question what we value, things do genuinely start to change. It seems clear to me that the lack of women in debating is very much symptomatic of how society undervalues women’s voices in general. We need to encourage women to take up as much space and time as they need and want, and stop crediting the semblance of power and authority as actual competence.
Illustration by Rivka Cocker.