Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Reflections on the 2014 Celebration of Women in Debate Tournament at George Mason University

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Reflections on the 2014 Celebration of Women in Debate Tournament at George Mason University

Article excerpt


Although there is a considerable amount of research on the benefits of competing in debate, there are relatively few studies specifically focused on women in collegiate policy debate. Participation in collegiate policy debate is still largely dominated by men, despite dramatic increases in the number of women in other academic spaces, including both classrooms and extracurricular activities. While debate boasts a deep historical tradition of promoting progressive ideals, the culture of competitive debate has not fostered inclusivity in the activity itself.

College debate has the potential to empower students with advocacy skills. It provides an invaluable form of education because it builds the skills citizens need in a modern democracy to understand and make informed decisions about policies that impact their lives. It teaches students to evaluate evidence and arguments in our increasingly information-rich environment, and debaters learn to prioritize their time and political energies in advocating for policies that matter to them. At a time when information literacy is becoming ever more important, the merits of debate as a tool of "democratic capacity-building" are more obvious than ever (Lundberg 2010, 321). Therefore, the continued lack of participation by women in this activity is problematic. It threatens their future potential for effective participation in civic life.

As two college debate coaches and former debate competitors, we have first-hand experience with the challenges facing women in debate. We witnessed the lack of gender diversity in the activity while competing, and as coaches we have noticed how fewer and fewer women compete in debate at the highest levels. Although there is considerable gender diversity in novice debate (Stepp and Gardner 2001), the numbers become increasingly skewed toward men as debaters move up to the junior varsity and varsity debate divisions.

In this essay, we address the broad question of how the debate community can promote more gender diversity. On a micro-level, we seek to account for why women sometimes feel unwelcome in the activity and what specific changes must be made to change these perceptions. There are actually several problems relating to women participating in debate. First, men are overrepresented in debate both as competitors and coaches. Second, there is a retention problem following the first year of competition. Finally, too few women compete in elimination rounds or win speaker awards at debate tournaments. While we do not presume to have answers to all of these problems, we do hope to initiate a conversation about what actions might be taken to make debate a more welcoming space for women.

Most of the collegiate policy debate community has embraced a progressive ideology, supporting efforts to include more women in the activity. This is reflected in efforts to change the rules and norms of debate to make the activity more welcoming both for women and students of color. However, many calls for change within the activity have not been followed up with meaningful action. Countless proposals for making debate more welcoming for women have been made, but few have come to fruition. On the College Policy Debate Facebook page, for example, posts that advocate for efforts to include more women in debate often attract a lot of "likes," but only when they require little social investment. When posts ask others to actually do something--to get involved in some program or initiative to help make debate more inclusive--the number of "likes" declines.

In this essay, we reflect on the successes and failures of activism designed to promote more gender diversity within the collegiate policy debate community. Progress has been made, of course. But given the number of intelligent, progressive individuals who claim to support making debate more inclusive, the slow progress toward making competitive policy debate a more welcoming and safer activity for women might be judged a collective failure. …

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