by Joan Reardon, Grace Haddad, Alexis Santor, Carley Francis,
with technical assistance from Jen Gonda,
Cardinal Mooney High School (Youngstown)
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Part 1 of a two-part series, with Part 2 scheduled for publication next week.
by Rich Kawolics, Chair of the OHSSL Board of Directors
Is there gender bias in debate judging?
Why are male debaters and extempers so much more successful in competition than their female peers? Those of us who coach girls in debate and analytical speaking have long been perplexed by the apparent disparity in success between male and female participants in these events.
We have been concerned that as many as 80 percent of the top places in Policy, Public Forum, Lincoln Douglas, and Extemporaneous Speaking at major tournaments have gone to male competitors, while the number of female competitors in these events seemingly has plummeted. We have shared story after story of our female debaters being criticized for being too aggressive while their male competitors are praised for the same behaviors. But until now, we have had very little data on which to base our concern, and we have certainly had no idea what to do about it.
But now, Coach Jen Gonda and four of her debaters from Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown have taken the first step in putting hard data around perceptions of gender disparity in debate. By carefully analyzing published debate ballots, they have found startling and concerning evidence that female debaters are subject to judges’ criticism for assertiveness far more frequently than are male debaters.
“Coach Jen Gonda and four of her debaters…have taken the first step in putting hard data around perceptions of gender disparity in debate.”
Moreover, they also find that male debaters often are encouraged to be more assertive, while female debaters only rarely receive the same encouragement. Any of us involved in teaching and coaching debate and extemp should be concerned by these findings.
Jen’s (and her team’s) study is not comprehensive, and it is far from conclusive in demonstrating a causal link between gender bias and competitive success. However, it does present a crucial first step in documenting and understanding how gender perceptions and stereotypes may be impacting our female students. If gender bias is diminishing female students’ interest in debate, and if those female students are giving up because they believe the deck is stacked against them, then all of us have a problem.
I commend Jen and her students for their work in bringing this issue to light, and I hope that their work will spur further research into the issue of gender bias in speech and debate so that, ultimately, all of our students can be treated fairly and equitably.
The Feminist Kritik
For female debaters, the situation described by sophomore Alexis Santor is all too familiar.
“Being a woman in Public Forum Debate is difficult. I love debating, but I am held to a separate standard than my fellow male debaters. My partner is male and when we are in especially heated rounds, he is complimented for his ‘dominance’ and praised for being assertive, whereas I am critiqued on being ‘rude’ or too aggressive. Once a comment on my ballot said, ‘Alexis, stop being so aggressive, it comes off as rude.’
“The (male) judge failed to comment about how many times I was interrupted, or the behavior of any other debaters in the room, all of whom were male; nor did the judge offer any constructive advice on how to better myself as a debater. My behavior in the round was no different from that of my male competitors or my partner, yet I alone was called rude. That was not the first time I had been singled out on a ballot.”
“All too often, girls are called out for their behavior in rounds, whereas male competitors are not. This gender-based standard gives all girls in debate a disadvantage.”
The professionalism of Public Forum debaters—and debaters in general—has been an issue in promoting quality debate. But this topic can become concerning when professionalism is judged by different standards.
“My behavior in the round was no different from that of my male competitors or my [male] partner, yet I alone was called rude.”
We all have heard of female debaters being criticized for being “rude” while male debaters are applauded for their “dominance” in the round. Thus far, the evidence of this in the Ohio High School Speech (and Debate) League (OHSSL) has been anecdotal or case-by-case. However, at the 2017 Sylvania Invitational, a female public forum debater was told on one ballot that she needed to be “more aggressive” and on another ballot was told to be “less rude.” The most simplistic explanation for this might be that her performance varied based on the round. However, this situation piqued the interest of the Cardinal Mooney Public Forum Debate Team. With the ballot for each Public Forum round at the Sylvania tournament available via SpeechWireTM files, a round-by-round analysis commenced.
The steps of this analysis are presented for external validity, meaning that we encourage other teams to reapply our analysis to support or dispute our result. The hypothesis was that females would be told to be “less aggressive,” “less rude,” and/or “less dominant” more often than males.
There were four female debaters and one female debate coach evaluating the ballots. Each person took one to three rounds to read through the ballots, and if the words “aggressive,” “rude,” “dominant,” or any variations of those words were found, it was read to the group. Then the group determined if the ballot was asking the competitor to be more or less “aggressive,” “rude,” or “dominant,” and if that statement was made to a female or male debater.
If the word was used multiple times, it was only counted once. There were no cases where the same person/team was told to be both more and less of the key terms in a single round. If the term was used to describe the team of debaters, it was marked twice. (This situation only occurred once.) If the term was used to describe all debaters in the round, it was marked four times. (This situation, again, only happened once.)
If the term was used to praise the debater, it was marked as a “more” statement, as praise would be considered encouragement to keep doing what the debater already was doing, but in subsequent rounds. (This occurred six times.) If the analyzers were unable to determine the gender of the name on the ballot, the name was put into a Facebook search to either identify the exact person, or to determine the gender specificity of the name. This was the case with a few non-Anglo-Saxon names. In these cases, the gender specificity was immediately identified on Facebook.
“The hypothesis was that females would be told to be ‘less aggressive,’ ‘less rude,’ and/or ‘less dominant’ more often than males.”
At the Sylvania Invitational on January 13th and 14th 2017, 37% of the Public Forum debaters were female and just under 32% of preliminary rounds were won by females. However, as the tournament progressed, the percent of female debaters in the tournament decreased to 25% breaking to elimination rounds, only 12.5% making it to octo-final rounds, and then zero making it to semifinal or final rounds. Of the 333 ballots, 24 ballots indicated that the debaters should be less “aggressive,” “rude,” or “dominant”—and 16 ballots indicated that the debaters should be more “aggressive” or “dominant.”
The gender disparity, however, was startling: 9 males were told to be less “aggressive,” “rude,” or “dominant”—to 12 males told to be more so; 15 females were told to be less “aggressive,” “rude,” or “dominant”—and only 1 female was told to be more so. (It should be noted that there were no ballots indicating that anyone should be “more rude.”)
All preliminary- and break-round ballots were included. The results are represented in the bar graph below.
These results indicate that, when counting only the ballots containing criticisms, males are told to be more aggressive, or are praised for their dominance, on 57% of the ballots; they were critiqued for their demeanor only 43% of the ballots (when evaluating the amount of times “aggressive” or “dominant” were written by judges). On the whole, males were encouraged to be “more aggressive.”
Conversely, females were told to be less aggressive on 94% of the ballots, and were told to be “more dominant” on 6% of the ballots analyzed. Females then were much more likely to be told to be “less aggressive.” Of the one female debater told to be more aggressive (1 ballot), it should be noted that she was one of the analyzers. She was also told to be more aggressive in an octo-final round where she was the only female debater in the room—and the ballot telling her to be more aggressive was from the only female judge in the room.
On a per-capita basis from all debaters at the tournament, female debaters are more likely to be criticized by judges. Taking ballots with criticism and total number of debaters shows that about 24% of female debaters are criticized—compared to about 18% of male debaters. But when we look at the nature of those criticisms (whether it is to be more or less of the key terms), the impact is large.
Using the same calculation basis, only 8% of male debaters are told to be less aggressive while nearly a quarter of female debaters are given that criticism. Stated another way, female debaters are three times as likely to be criticized for being too aggressive than are their male counterparts. Conversely, male debaters are eight times as likely to be told to be more assertive than are their female counterparts.
“On a per-capita basis from all debaters at the tournament, female debaters are more likely to be criticized by judges.”
The analysis occurred the week of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and corresponding sister marches across the country and the world. There was much discussion regarding women’s rights by male and female debaters during practice that week at Cardinal Mooney High School. It was hard for the male debaters to recognizes that women were not equal in America and that any instances that would seem unequal is not a result of the free choice of that person. There was also discussion (regarding the results of this analysis) that perhaps female debaters generally needed to be less “rude,” “aggressive,” or “dominant.”
To that point the research team (albeit biased because we were all women) argued that, if such was the case, then why were there no women in rounds past quarterfinals? If men were praised or told to be “more” aggressive or dominant 57% of the time and women only 6% of the time, should that not mean that women have it figured out and would be winning more frequently?
Neither the male nor female debaters reached consensus regarding interpretation of the results.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 2 is due for publication on Saturday, May 13, 2017.