It’s a remarkable twist of fate; in high schools, debating is an activity targeted at girls first and foremost. Come university, however, the tables turn, and it becomes a male-dominated arena, in more ways than one.
Female rates of participation in university debating are so low, that for major tournaments, such as the Australian National and Australasian Championships, affirmative action plans are in place, mandating that at least one third of a university’s contingent be female. There is also an annual major tournament wholly dedicated to female and gender non-binary debaters.
The inequality between men and women in debating comes as a surprise to many; sport is the traditional arena where female under-representation is a known issue. But a look further into the characteristics of debating, and it becomes clear that in a room full of argumentative people, using loud voices and pulling no punches in their attacks, men are by far more comfortable.
President of UOW Debating Society, Annie Hazleton, says that engrained beliefs about gender and a woman’s ability have contributed to their limited presence.
“In debating, there is less emphasis on women having the potential to be good…and I think it’s also – women just don’t believe in themselves as much, they just don’t have the same self-confidence as men do.”
Unfortunately, the discrimination does not end there.
Eileesha Smith, a novice debater from UOW, recalls a discussion she overheard at her first competition.
“I was kind of on the outside of a conversation that was really quite disturbing…specifically Sydney’s culture of having very young females sleep with older guys, and that that was often very coercive.”
The alcohol-fuelled culture at social events, combined with the aura of male dominance, makes it very likely that a woman could be propositioned, and in the most extreme cases, sexually assaulted. Sexual assaults did occur this year at both the Australian National and Australasian Championships.
Ms. Smith has herself been a victim of men telling her she owes them sexual favours for having beaten them in debates.
“I think that’s the most scary part about being a female in debating, for sure,” she says. Luckily, she has always had friends willing to stand up for her.
The strong friendships these women form keep them coming back, and improvements are starting to be made on the whole, with the introduction of a female mentoring program and an expansion in the equity policy at tournaments.
Change, however, will not happen overnight; it will take the efforts of many passionate women from many universities to improve the standing women have in the debating culture.
Storified tweets can be found here.