Debate and Gender: WUDL is Changing the Game

November 10, 2017

 

When I was in high school in Florida, debate was largely a male dominated sport. Our team (15-20 students) had only 3 female members for one year, and was never more than 1/3rd women. On the state circuit, there were only two women who were consistent trophy threats. While both have gone on to be quite successful (an attorney and a prominent Trump surrogate), the gender ratios I experienced in my high school debate experience isn't unique. 

 

An all female team has never won the NDT (National Debate Tournament, the most prestigious college national tournament), and the number of women who won the tournament partnered with man can be counted on one hand. General participation statistics across the country at all levels of competition generally skew towards men.

 

Traditionally,  debate is portrayed as a "man's game." Skills that make a good debater--charisma, speaking presence and volume, research, and cut throat competitiveness are historically and stereotypically associated with men. The few movies about debate have centered around men, whether they are mainstream, such as The Great Debaters (Starring Denzel Washington), or documentaries such as Resolved (following 4 male debaters from different backgrounds. Women who speak up and are assertive are construed as "bitchy," but otherwise get run over by similarly assertive men, who are seen as charismatic for the same exact behavior. 

 

When we started the WUDL, we wanted to encourage a more equal gender ratio when it came to participation and hoped that it would translate into competitive success.  I encouraged coaches to recruit balanced teams, but we were more focused on just getting a critical mass of students to have tournaments than on the details of exactly who those students were. After our first season, we made it a priority to expand the number of female judges, with reasonable success, but didn't make any other policy changes that might have impacted the league's gender breakdown. 

 

Over the last two years, something rather wonderful has happened: The WUDL has become a distinctly female dominated debate league, a rarity across the country. This manifests in several ways:

 

Participation: Women have always made up between 59 and 69% of students in the WUDL. This is consistent across all racial categories and doesn't vary by age/grade level.

 

Competitive Success:

2015-2016: Women won 45% of trophies in the WUDL, but only 33% of individual speaker awards.

2016-2017: Women won 47% of trophies in the WUDL, and 50% of speaker awards.

2017-2018 to date: Women have won 49% of trophies, and 63% of speaker awards. 

 

WUDL was represented by two men and two women in our first trip to the NAUDL National tournament, and a pair of young women won our regional tournament this past May. The league has had a great array of strong female debaters consistently winning the top trophies, and the only team that remains undefeated after three tournaments is a pair of 8th grade girls from DCI. 

 

While we're still not entirely sure what the recipe for participatory and competitive gender equity is, we are exceedingly glad to have found it, and look forward to nourishing it going forward. 

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