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Sexism is a problem in debate, female debaters say

Despite the success of Greenhill Debate, female debaters often leave the program. According to class rosters, there are currently only five girls in the Advanced Debate class out of a total of 13 students. Of these five, there is only one active female senior debater. Many say this is due to the apparent sexist behavior in debate, not exclusively at Greenhill, but at tournaments as well.
Before senior Brooke Bulmash’s first debate tournament her freshman year, Cindy Timmons, Director of Debate Aaron Timmons’ wife, who often helps at tournaments, sat her and the other girls down to discuss the way they should handle themselves during a tournament. They were told to hold their tongue and mind the volume of their voice, because trying to match boys’ behavior would paint them in a bad light.
Whereas boys might be perceived as assertive, girls are often perceived as ‘bossy,’ even if they are simply rising to the same level of aggression as their male opponents.
Brooke said she soon realized why this conversation was important so early on in her debate career. Although the treatment of girls in debate at Greenhill was fair and equal, the tournaments were a different story.
“I was about to give the first constructive speech, and as I gave [my opponents] the flash-drive with my speech on it, and I was walking back to my computer I heard, ‘Debate Barbie,’ [from the opposing boys] which was very unsettling. That threw me off for the rest of the round and even the rest of the tournament,” Brooke said.
According to Brooke, the incident made her realize the amount of criticism that girls receive in debate. She said it’s not just the way girls speak that is scrutinized, but also the way they dress.
“There is a lot of scrutiny on the way you dress as a debater. Girls who wear high heels and a lot of makeup and not necessarily business attire are seen as less competitive,” Brooke said.
Middle and Upper School Debate Coach Eric Forslund said that sexism isn’t exclusive to debate, but is an issue throughout competitive academic fields.
“I think there are some pressures girls face nationally. When they are involved in high-level academic events, there is pressure to not be associated with that. I’ve seen that quite a bit, there is more pressure to do things that are considered feminine,” Mr. Forslund said.
Senior debater Grace Kuang said that there is pressure on the girls to not make mistakes in class, as they risk losing credibility when they do.
“It’s weird because a lot of the people there, especially guys, aren’t intentionally trying to be sexist. It’s like when you get a group of guys together who are really intelligent and who think they are really intelligent, there’s this group mentality that always happens where it feels like you’re consistently undermined, or if you speak up in class and give the wrong answer, there’s more loss of credibility when you do it than when they do it,” Grace said.
Senior Shivani Daftary, who is still enrolled in the class but no longer debates competitively, said that this creates an exclusive atmosphere where girls do not always feel comfortable.
“I think girls may be deterred from the activity because they might not want to be in a class that’s full of just guys. It’s kind of intimidating. The way that guys go about learning is different than girls, and when you don’t have any other girls on the team or only have one other girl, it can seem a little alienating. In a sense, it seems like, ‘Why am I doing this activity if I’m not treated in the same way, even if it may be unintentional or subconscious?’” Shivani said.
Shivani said part of the reason she left competitive debate was because of the lack of female role models in the activity.
“Partially it had to do with the fact that I had other commitments and I didn’t want to give up everything for debate, so I switched to public forum because it was less time intensive. But another portion of it was also the way that male coaches, not intentionally, but especially in the debate world, teach in general is very different than how a female might coach. They expect that you know something, and if you don’t, it’s guy mentality that they joke around about it,” Shivani said.
Freshman Sophia Hurst, who is in the Introductory to Debate class, said that boys in her class form a camaraderie that excludes girls.
“The team dynamic is very masculine and very based on a male dynamic. It may not be sexist, but there is definitely exclusion throughout the debate community,” Sophia said.
According to Director of Debate Aaron Timmons, Greenhill’s debate staff recognizes these issues and has had conversations about possible solutions.
“Start with young women and allow them to have a voice. One of the things we have done in the last four to five years is develop a Lower School speech and debate club, and when they’re younger, we have the girls debating mainly with girls and the boys debating with boys. It’s to develop a sense of confidence and a sense of a voice that they may not have had,” Mr. Timmons said.
Freshmen debater Esha Julka noted that it is up to the girls in debate to serve as role models to other girls who may be hesitating to join the team.
“As girls, it’s our responsibility to do so because the only way we are going to get girls to stick with an activity that they love is to make sure they have someone there guiding the way,” Esha said.
Mr. Timmons believes it’s also important to have female coaches. Shivani agrees, and believes that having female role models on the team would result in a higher retention rate for girls.
“There’s a difference between having two males coaches on the debate team and having female representation. Starting off freshman and sophomore year the class is pretty equal in terms of girls and boys, but in terms of people you look up to, they’re all guys,” Shivani said.
Currently, Greenhill Debate has two assistant female coaches. However, they do not spend much time with the team. Sophia and Esha think they should play a bigger role on the team.
“They’re not really very involved, so it’s hard to tell what they’re like. They come to tournaments when the coaches can’t, and it’s hard to form a relationship with someone you don’t see very often,” Sophia said.
Despite the issues that many girls face in debate, there are girls who thrive in the program and debate all four years of high school.
“We’ve had over the last few years a robust number of girls participate. Not only participate, but excel. They’re the ones who can not only put into words, but also have the motivation, the drive to navigate through some tough situations. Some of the best debaters we have had here have been women,” Mr. Timmons said.
Last week, junior Shruthi Krishnan was named the top speaker and champion of the National Debate Coaches Associations National Championship event. She was thrilled to gain this status not only for herself, but for her team, saying that her role models were the strong Greenhill female debaters that came before her.
“I was really excited to win top speaker and win the event because it’s a goal I’ve had ever since I joined Greenhill debate as a freshman. I would look up to all the people that had done Lincoln-Douglass debate before me like Rebecca Kuang a couple years ago and think, ‘That’s so cool, they won all these awards, I want to be successful like them,’” said Shruthi. “Some of my biggest role models and some of our most successful debaters have been female debaters, like Rebecca Kuang and Mitali Mathur.”
Despite the program’s flaws, Grace said that it’s important for girls to continue debate because of the value of the skills learned in the activity.

“It is such a shame when a girl quits debate because of a guy because it’s such a valuable activity,” said Grace. “It teachers girls how to combat sexism in the real world and gives them those advocacy skills that will help them later on in life.”

Taken from The Evergreen’s April 2016 issue

Graphic by Grace Doyle

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