I recently began consulting for a high school forensic debate team. Although I was never a debater, I wanted to use my coaching skills to help students be more effective at public speaking and persuasion.

At my very first national circuit debate tournament last spring, I walked into the cafeteria at a high school in New York City and was stunned by what I saw: a room filled with young men, and only a scattering of young women. Nearly all the coaches and judges were male as well.

Where were all the female debaters?

This month, as thousands of young women across the country head back to high school and sign up for extracurricular activities, not enough young women will be choosing debate.

We need to change this. The forensic debate community has long been concerned with promoting diversity and has made improvements on the ethnic front. But when it comes to gender, progress has been slow.

While the gender gap exists at the middle school level and in freshman year, it gets much worse at more advanced levels. For example, at the prestigious and highly competitive Tournament of Champions last spring in Lexington, Kentucky, only 23 out of a total 86 debaters in the Lincoln-Douglas format – the one in which I’m involved – were female.

With so few young women in the upper reaches of debate, our society is missing out on a critical opportunity to promote Enlightenment ideals of discussion and argument based on evidence and persuasion. And in a world increasingly dominated by ignorance and extremism, we’re also neglecting a powerful tool for collaborative problem solving.

This is especially true in Lincoln-Douglas debating, which calls for “switch-siding,” meaning each debater prepares both sides of an argument. Even when you already have a strong opinion about a particular argument, preparing for the other side leads to a broader perspective, including the legitimacy of the opposite point of view.

Why are so many females missing out on this key formative experience?

The debate coaches I’ve talked to say many young women are put off by the level of aggression they experience in debate. Females in middle and high school are under tremendous pressure to conform to stereotypical feminine behavior. Confrontational debate makes them uncomfortable.

And when young women do adopt the same hard-hitting behaviors as their male counterparts, they’re often penalized by the judges and lose points for being “too aggressive.”

Lauren Cole began debating at age 14 as a freshman in Westchester County, New York. In her first year she competed against others in the novice division. She won four tournaments in a row, which gave her a surge of self-confidence. “I felt like I had a superhuman power,” she said.

But the next year, in the junior varsity division, she faced opponents who were more experienced, with more polished debate techniques. For the first time, she started losing.

She also encountered overt sexism. Judges criticized her for the length of her skirt, for touching her hair, and for having a voice that was too high-pitched. Many other young women on the debate circuit have experienced the same thing.

In fact there’s now a debate about judging in debate. Is the gender bias conscious or unconscious, or a mix of both? “It has a lot to do with perception, because if a male were as aggressive as me, he wouldn’t be perceived that way,” Cole said.

Once, after a debate round, a male opponent accused her of being too aggressive, then tauntingly asked if she was on her period. “I said ‘no’ and stormed off,” she said.

Last spring, Daniel Tartakovsky used statistics from national debate tournaments to analyze the role of gender on the national debate circuit. He found that in Lincoln-Douglas, male debaters facing women had a 15.5 percentage point higher win rate than their female opponents. In Public Form debate, males also did better than females – in that forum he found a 27 percentage point gap between male-male and female-female pairings.

But here’s what’s even more revealing: He found that when a male debater loses a round, he’s likely to go back for another. But when a female debater at the same skill level loses a round, she’s more likely to drop out. Given that male debaters are winning so many more rounds than females, the negative effect of losing on female debaters is much greater.

Many studies have shown that young men and young women respond differently to setbacks. We know teen girls suffer a larger decrease in self-esteem during their adolescent years than boys.

Years of research indicate that adolescent girls’ confidence plummets during puberty. They often have trouble speaking up for themselves, a phenomenon called “losing their voice.”

Young women who hold back as adolescents may never catch up. In addition to strengthening communication skills – which surveys show are at the top of employers’ wish lists – high school debaters are more likely to graduate, more likely to reach college readiness benchmarks, and have higher GPAs than their peers.

If we want more women to rise to top leadership, if we want to develop diverse future leaders – whether in politics, the C-suite, or on corporate boards – we need to strengthen their resilience at the beginning of the talent pipeline..

There are those who say that for women to succeed in debate, they need to adapt to the hyper-aggressive behaviors that have become the norm in forensic debate. That’s the best preparation for a post-debate world that’s not going to cut them any slack.

I agree that young women need to learn to be tough, when toughness is called for. And that competitive debate is a good forum for sharpening those skills.

At the same time, given what we know about young women, setbacks, and self-esteem, we need to find ways to encourage female debaters to rebound from the inevitable losses. Teachers, coaches, judges, parents, and tournament administrators all have a role to play.

Let’s find new ways to curb bullying behavior. Let’s encourage more women coaches and judges as role models. And let’s be very clear about what kinds of skills we’re asking judges to consider. Simply calling a debater “too aggressive” is too vague and should be discouraged.

Perhaps tournaments should restructure the divisions to provide more support for female debaters as they transition up the ranks from the shallow to the deeper waters.

It also makes sense to expand access to debate. A larger and more diversified pool of participants will help change the behavioral norms. There are a number of groups supporting debate in schools with non-existent or underfunded programs. We can do more on that front.

Despite her losses, Lauren Cole barreled through her sophomore and junior years. Out of 44 national circuit tournaments, she lost 92 rounds and won 163. Now she’s entering her senior year and feels ready for whatever comes.

As Cole discovered, picking yourself up after failure builds resilience. But when a young woman backs away from challenges, or loses confidence and drops out of competition, she’s depriving herself of the very fuel she needs to build inner resources and stay in the game.


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