In Closing …

Final Updates and My Study Moving Forward

Hi everyone and happy New Year! As this semester comes to a close, so does my time working on this project as an official independent study. That is not to say this project is over! Upon relentless revision, I have updated the “Paper” page in the menu to the left to include the final draft (yay!) of my formal paper. I have also made two new pages in the menu, one containing my abstract and the other, a consolidated version of my findings and figures in case the 30 page full paper is daunting. Summaries of my 7 part interview series with coaches, students, and tournament directors discussing the reasons behind the disparities I find and how we can confront them can be found as individual posts. I am currently seeking publication and scheduling a meeting with the NSDA to present my results and encourage more equitable policies. I will keep you all updated on both fronts. As always, I am happy to discuss any of my findings or gender in Congressional Debate generally as well as answer any questions. Thank you all for your continued interest and support!

Tokenism and Impunity in the Debate Community

Interview 7, Bhamini Vellanki

This week I spoke with Bhamini Vellanki, a very successful female debater who competed in Congress from 2014 to 2018. She represents a student perspective like Izzi and Mary but from 4 years prior. Her comments elucidate what has changed in the event as well as what has persisted.

In defining equity, Bhamini stresses that initiatives towards must be genuine rather than performative. During her time debating, “equity” meant minority faces on posters or quotes on the National Speech and Debate Association’s (NSDA) Instagram. This created the perception that equality was tokenism, being used, which made many women of color question why they weren’t being used. For this reason, she emphasizes the importance of redefining equity in the debate community and teaching women what it looks like. Similarly, women should be equipped with the knowledge of what it doesn’t look like, what is inappropriate or sexist and the subtleties of both. If women are conditioned to believe that sexual harassment and profane language from judges are normal, they are left perpetually uncomfortable but cannot identify real problems or bring them to light for solving. Reversing this indoctrination that women must put up with discomfort and teaching them to stand up for themselves is essential.

However, in the case that women do bring problems to light, Bhamini explains that the hypocrisy of “feminist” coaches and tournament directors prevents them from ever being solved. While many adults in the debate community claim to support women and efforts towards equity, their actions represent a different reality: they prioritize their own success as Emily talked about last week. This manifests as adults believing mens’ complaints of harassment or inequity every time while questioning women, instructing women to play into femininity to appeal to judges and competitors by wearing pantyhose, skirts, heels, and makeup or doing their hair and nails, making many inappropriate comments about the appearance and romantic lives of female students, and sometimes sexually harassing or assaulting them. She explains that these people remain in charge of coaching, judging, and directing with total impunity despite allegations against them because debate is a microcosm of our world and government; speech and debate bodies are political structures supported by networks of power, nepotism, privilege, and oppression and so any subversion of White male dominance must be suppressed. 

She says that  while certain predatory coaches have been fired over the years, one bad coach gone every ten years is seen as “progress” which allows for the dismissal of identical or worse behavior in other coaches for another ten years. Something Bhamini said that really struck me was that due to her experiences and many of her female peers, she cannot imagine a day when the adults in charge will actually protect students. To attempt to hold coaches accountable, she proposes increasing the role of students in the governing of the debate community in two ways. First, gender parity should be mandated on the NSDA board of directors and students should get a vote in who is on the board and sub-panels. Second, district student liaisons should be created to take reports and complaints of coach, judge, or director inequity or misconduct to then take to a larger body of people which includes parents who may carry out an investigatory and/or disciplinary procedure. This new process would a. Remove the risk reporting-students face of retaliation from their coaches or other students and b. Ensure the people hearing the complaint (parents) actually have a vested interest in protecting students.

In weighing in on the “boys club” discussed in the past few interviews, Bhamini reveals how this is perhaps an area in which Congress has improved. While entrance remains discriminatory and exclusive as well as essential to success, the behavior of members has noticeably changed. She explains how when she was debating, women were granted entrance for two reasons: being a sex object or a prep monkey for the men, and willing to endure the harassment that resulted from being either. Despite the steep price of boys’ club membership, it was one female debaters reluctantly played because the importance of membership was also proportionately higher back then. In 2016, there was a group chat leading up to NSDA nationals called the “Good Old Boys Club,” the texts of which have been exposed since. In this chat, a black list of female debaters was created informing everyone in the chat on who to exclude from conversations and actively scheme against in round. They had decided who would be the presiding officer for each round and even organized a list of who in the chat would speak at each point in the round and what they would say so that all of the speeches they gave would work in each other’s favor and against everyone else. For an event that is supposed to be spontaneous and include extemporaneous responses to the points given just minutes before your speech, this was a gross violation of event conduct as well as obviously equity. The result was that despite one female debater winning every single national tournament of the year, she placed 12th at the NSDA tournament and not a single female debater placed higher than her. That was not a coincidence, that was the result of a group of men completely gaming the event against women. 

Because of how pervasive this behavior was, women were unable to form healthy relationships with each other although they were in the same marginalized position. Due to all the facets of sexism in Congress in Bhamini’s time there was literally only room for one woman in the top 6 at each tournament so inevitably women fought against each other for that spot and talked badly about each other out of round in efforts to orchestrate the boys club against them maximizing their own success in a system that resisted it at every turn. Women being forced into hating each other and vying for everyone’s attention is another unhealthy behavior women who have competed in national Congressional Debate have to spend years unlearning. Women in Congress were attacked for everything they did, even the content of their speeches. When female debaters would make arguments to uplift women or Black debaters would make arguments to protect people of color, they got accused of engaging in “tragedy porn” which is abusing social issues to increase ranks from judges by playing on their emotions and aiming to gain sympathy points. However, the same arguments were permissible for White men to use without social ramifications because they did not identify with the group they were arguing in favor of. How distorted is that! While a lot of what Bhamini explained about the adults that ingrain structural inequities seems to persist today, Izzi, Mary, and Emily’s interviews suggest improvement in how women are treated by their student peers. Thank you so much Bhamini for all that you added to this interview series and for being a great mentor of mine for the past 4 years!

“The Best Legislator” Includes Chamber Conduct

Interview 6, Emily Donaldson

Last week I spoke with Emily Donaldson who competed in Congressional Debate for 4 years and has been the Durham Academy Congress coach for the past two. I wanted to speak with her because she is in the unique position to offer ideas from the student and coach perspective.

As a new coach, she says equity should guide everything about how coaches train women in the event. She says they should raise novices with the same level of commitment regardless of gender and work to provide equitable access to mentors, training, and support for all of their students, which is often not the case right now. She stresses the importance of female mentors, suggesting that a potential reason for the consistency in male advancement and variability in female advancement that Izzi and Mary brought up is that women are not presented with a model or mentor of what successful debate looks like because almost all successful debaters who students are taught to study are male. This leaves women with great uncertainty surrounding what style to emulate or how to adapt to different ones. Another key job of coaches she mentions is the prioritization of students over personal success. She explains that the clout chasing Izzi and Mary revealed in the last interview extends to coaches and even tournament directors, creating a harmful conflict of interest. Coaches will ignore inequities, for example refusing to report claims of inequity to boards, and even reinforce them, for example instructing women to lower their voice or speak slower and less assertively, to maintain connections with other adults in the debate community and maximize the success of their program. She says the only way this culture changes is if coaches and tournament directors can restructure their priorities to put students first, above their own clout gain.

Concerning the student perspective, Emily reaffirms everything Izzi and Mary say about the importance of both students and judges in determining competitive outcomes for women. As far as students go, she confirms that being a part of the “boys club” is essential for all of the reasons discussed in the last interview. An important addition of hers, though, is that tournament policies were, and continue to be, behind the purpose of boys club pre-round negotiating. When tournaments release more than 9 preliminary bills (some release as many as 23), knowing that only around 6 will be debated, they create an impossible preparation burden that students will inevitably work to reduce through group chats in which they select which around 6 to prepare. When tournaments release 9 or fewer bills, there is almost no need to negotiate the order of bills because the chamber could end up debating all of them in the time allotted. While blind chambers are ineffective at limiting pre-round negotiating, she says tournament sanctioned group chats could work because they create an opportunity for all competitors to interact and could be monitored for harassment and exclusion. A solution Emily proposes to in-round student-led discrimination is randomly appointing one or two chamber leader(s) in elimination rounds who would be tasked with leading inclusive conversations during recesses and advocating for all students in the round. After the round, the students of the chamber would fill out a ballot to evaluate how equitable the leader was. These ranks could create a real incentive by determining a number of additional NSDA points the leader would gain.

Regarding judges, Emily stresses the importance of educating them to be aware of gender dynamics in round and how that should inform their selection of the best over all “legislators” of the round, not just good debaters. They should pay attention to which students are getting dropped and excluded, and who’s dropping and excluding them. Parliamentarians, judges who run the round before and after the presiding officer, should necessarily be experienced individuals who can pick up on inequity in the chamber and work to promote equity, in doing so deterring discriminatory behavior. She describes the ideal elimination round judging panel to include 2 experienced judges, but not college freshmen who have bias towards their friends competing, and 1 newer judge for balance.

In closing, Emily reiterates how important the community aspect is to creating support systems for women in Congress, encouraging them to join and stay in the event. While clout-chasing will always exist, the goal should be to add grace and respect for it. Successful men should hold other male-debaters accountable for their misbehavior and successful women should work to uplift other women even once they’ve gained boys club entrance. Thank you Emily for a great interview and for being the most amazing mentor to me for these 4 years!

Perceptual Dominance and Clout Culture

Interview 5, Izzi Gershon and Mary Mungai

Last week, I spoke with Izzi Gershon and Mary Mungai, two of my peers, and close friends, in the Congressional Debate community. This was my first interview assessing the current student perspective on gender equity in Congressional Debate!

As the other interviews have elucidated, the widely held image of a “good debater” in Congress is one that excludes women and Black students. Mary and Izzi explained that there is also an image of what “good debate” looks like which reinforces the exclusive “good debater” image. “Good debate” in Congress today is governed by perceptual dominance, meaning the more dominant a debater is perceived to be by the judges, the more highly they will be ranked. Being perceived as dominant and, thus, a “good debater” relies on assertive refutation. However, the correctness or the skill of counterarguments given is not as important to creating perceptual dominance as is the tone, volume, and words used to persuade judges you are the only person in the round who is correct. The problem with the foundations of perceptual dominance, tone, volume, speed, etc, is that they disadvantage women and, so, women are often hurt by engaging in “good debate.” Izzi recalls receiving a number of inappropriate comments from judges who penalized her for matching male debaters’ perceptual dominance. She has been told she was too pitchy, too aggressive, too emotional, and even been called a b***h by judges. Mary explained that while the consequences for women trying to meet the standard for good debate are clearly steep, there is really no alternative. If women are not assertive, they are perceived as timid or less knowledgeable where men would be labeled reserved or thoughtful. The art of being a successful female debater is creating perceptual dominance via navigating the thin line between aggressive and timid.

Another area of Congress that students have the most insight into is the clout culture profuse within it. Izzi reaffirms the existence of a “boys club” in Congressional Debate composed of “circuit” congressional debaters who regularly advance to elimination rounds at national tournaments. De facto “entrance” into the boys club is achieved through clout accumulation, but the bar is much higher for women. While men who advance to quarterfinals once may immediately gain entrance, women must consistently place in the top 12 to be considered. Why is being in the boys club important? Because it is this group of people who (1) create social media chats to orchestrate the order in which bills will be debated, (2) determine who the presiding officers will be for each elimination round, and (3) form alliances with each other in round to help each other and hurt other competitors. The boys club also shares research and arguments with each other. Female debaters who try to engage in this prep exchange are often penalized because they share their prep and do not receive anything in return. In fact, people have actually stolen speeches from women that were given in a round recorded on YouTube word for word without their permission on multiple accounts. If women are not in the boys club, they will almost certainly face a higher preparation burden and face other disadvantages. Izzi explains that the unfortunate reality is that this boys club systematically collaborates to scheme women out of the tournament in out rounds. For this reason, both Mary and Izzi support the implementation of blind chambers, preset precedents and recency, and soft end times which all work to limit the power of the boys club before and during round respectively.

They also bring up how another important factor in attaining clout is income. More money means students can go to more tournaments, place well at more tournaments, get clout, gain boys club advantages due to that clout, and gain more clout. Moreover, experienced judges in elimination rounds reinforce the exclusive clout cycle because they have a confirmation bias towards the debaters with clout who they know have placed well. Often, judges are not at all shy about this bias. Izzi and I have both received comments from experienced judges that they ranked us 1st before the round started. On the social side, women feel like they cannot talk about equity in debate because they are gaslighted by the boys club to believe that sexism doesn’t exist and they’re simply trying to excuse poor placements. But the consequences of suggesting an inequity that benefits men in the event are more severe, because women face the risk of being schemed against at future tournaments.

As students, Mary and Izzi could also speak to how Congress has changed during their time competing. The principal difference they list is a shift from what we say (arguments, links, evidence, impacts) to how we say things (tone, inflection, narrative, confidence, etc). The problem with this shift is that discriminatory perceptual dominance thrives in settings where judges care less about the substance accuracy of speeches and more about how they are delivered. The problem is also that the shift we are experiencing is a net shift not an absolute one, meaning many judges still value argumentation. With a majority judging panels composing some judges who want substance and some judges who want presentation, the true skill of Congressional Debate has become adapting to the judges in a specific round, to know when to give a late round technical, nuanced, refutation speech and when to speak first in the round with passionate rhetoric. Such adaptation being another requirement of “good debate” hurts non-circuit debaters from smaller schools who don’t know which judges like which style or which tournaments historically value which skills as well as women who are more likely to be hurt by the judges whose preferred style they do not naturally adopt. This may be part of why final round placements are more hit or miss for experienced female debaters, whereas the same group of male debaters advances to finals at nearly every tournament.

Mary and Izzi emphasize the importance of students in dismantling the harmful clout culture, but also that of coaches in helping them navigate it. Disrupting the boys club starts with getting more girls into Congress, so coaches must stop viewing Congress as a male event and encourage women to compete in it. Similarly, the rare Congress teams which are majority female must not be viewed as an anomaly in need of correcting. For girls already competing in the event, coaches should listen to and work to support their female students when the boys club and harmful tournament policies put them at a disadvantage. Part of that support is also rejecting the pitting of female debaters against each other, something which seems to transcend extracurricular activities. The length of this post is certainly indicative of how revelatory my interview with Izzi and Mary was. Thank you to you both!

Working Draft

Status Update and Exciting News

Hi everyone! For the past few weeks I have been revising my first draft which is now complete! To the left of these posts, and below the subscription box, there is a menu where I have created three new pages. The first one, Behind the Scenes, gives you all a look into how I gathered and analyzed data from Tabroom. It includes my primary dataset, codebook, and base R code. Political scientists often publish their dataset and codebook to strengthen the reliability of their findings and make their data accessible for further analysis. I post my data with the same mindset and value of transparency. I post my R code really just to show you all how I ran certain calculations if you’re curious. The second page is where you can find my current paper draft. If you get a chance to look through it, any questions, comments, and suggestions you may have are of course appreciated. The final page I made includes a copy of my initial proposal for this independent study. It’s definitely interesting to see how my project has evolved and taken shape since last Spring. I am beyond excited to finally share my work from the past six months with you all!

Speaking Equity is a Prerequisite to Gender Equity

Interview 4, Brittany Stanchik

For my fourth interview, I spoke with Brittany Stanchik, the Head Coach at Desert Vista HS who has extensive experience coaching, judging, and directing tournaments across the country. She offered a few new perspectives on recent policy changes, specifically the “blind chambers” and “preset precedents and recency” discussed by the Berlats and Alex Gordon. 

Where Alex and the Berlats agreed that blind chambers should be implemented to minimize pre-tournament discussion, Brittany diverged, contesting that pre-tournament discussions are largely inequitable in the first place. With tournaments publishing more pieces of legislation than can be debated in the time allocated, a preset agenda allows students to prioritize researching the legislation at the top of the agenda which will certainly be debated and minimize researching the legislation at the bottom of the agenda which students will likely not get to. This disproportionately helps students from smaller underprivileged debate programs who do not have the personnel or resources to thoroughly prepare each piece of legislation the way that larger programs can. So, pre-tournament discourse can actually empower disadvantaged debaters and level the playing field. She did concede, however, that these discussions are often exclusive, but argued that they can become even more so under blind chambers. Without blind chambers, students can see everyone entered in the tournament and everyone in their chamber. This gives them the opportunity to contact everyone in their chamber to collectively pre-elect Presiding Officers and set the order in which legislation will be debated. If students cannot see who is in their chamber, they simply contact their friends across the country to execute the same pre-elections and pre-setting of the agenda. With blind chambers, students do not have the opportunity to reach out to new or lesser known debaters entered in the tournament because they don’t know that they are going to the tournament or have any way to contact them. The result is that an even smaller proportion of students is included in the agenda setting and Presiding Officer elections that inevitably precedes tournaments. 

Brittany added a new layer to the conversation about preset precedents and recency. She stressed just how bad Presiding Officer gaming used to be in Congressional Debate: massive entirely male programs would form alliances with other massive male programs to single handedly elect every Presiding Officer in every national Congress round. As a result, in every national Congress round, the male Officers would select other male debaters from their group of “allies” and systematically neglect to call on female debaters earlier in rounds. The profound problem with this, she explains, is that students in Congress are not guaranteed a set number of speeches. Alex spoke about this as well, both he and Brittany concluding that when sessions end in the middle of a debate on a piece of legislation, the debaters selected to speak last, typically women, don’t get the chance to give a second or third speech like the speakers selected before them by the Presiding Officer. This inequity in speaking time that often hurts women the most is why Brittany supports preset recency despite taking issue with the way it reduces the Presiding Officer’s role in leading sessions.

Something unique about Brittany is that while she coaches students at tournaments almost every weekend and is exceedingly valued in tournament administration, she chooses to judge a lot of the time. In my first interview, Rich Kawolics emphasized the importance that coaches judge as Brittany does. She explained that by judging so often, she sees how Congress sessions play out and the inequities that operate within them. Many people who work in tabrooms and draft tournament policies aren’t familiar with the shortcomings of the event the way students and coaches who judge are. For example, she always advocates for flexible end times as a part of tab or judging staff to promote speaking equity and thinks that one of the reasons her advocacy is not shared more pervasively is that administrators don’t see the impact of inflexible end times. A long term solution to this she sees is coaches talking to their students more and forming closer relationships in which the student perspective is shared and heard. The importance of speaking equity in encouraging any other form of equity in Congress is definitely my main take away from this interview. Thank you so much to Brittany for meeting with me!

Equity as a Set of Practices

Interview 3, Alex Gordon

In my third interview, I spoke with Alex Gordon, one of the most successful Congressional Debaters of the past five years and President of the Yale Debate Association. The first question I asked Alex was what equity in Congress meant to him. His answer was incredibly insightful. He explained that equity can be defined as a “set of enacted practices to ensure everyone is treated fairly” because without deliberate choices being made and policies being codified, students, judges, and tabulators will implicitly or consciously diverge from equity.

Regarding such policies, he offered many ideas that expand upon my takeaways from my last interview with the Berlats. Alex agrees with the Berlats on the importance of preset precedents and recency in making Presiding Officers more equitable. Removing their decision making power also removes the potential for their biases to influence speaker selection and, thus, advantage allocation. He also agreed on the drawback of preset recency: it risks a trend towards automating or eliminating the Presiding Officer which he believes should remain a tenant of Student Congress. However, Alex brought up another downside of preset recency which is that it could hurt Presiding Officers who are equitable without preset recency. Judges should reward Presiding Officers for being equitable with higher ranks, but the opportunity to practice deliberate equity disappears with the implementation of preset recency. Alex recognized, though, that judges rarely notice equitable Presiding Officers anyway, so he ultimately supports preset recency. Importantly, Alex actually explained that perhaps the most equitable model of presiding is “progressive presiding” which can only be practiced without preset recency. Under this method, Presiding Officers select speakers from marginalized groups first and the White men last. Progressive presiding redistributes competitive advantages to favor those who suffer disadvantages right now. Alex helped implement “blind chambers,” a policy discussed by the Berlats, at the Yale Invitational this year. He agrees in the benefit they provide by reducing pre-tournament negotiation. However, he also noted that blind chambers are by no means an end all be all. Pre-round discussions are always going to happen and are pretty much impossible to eliminate, but blind chambers are an effective step in minimizing them and the inequity they cause.

While these policy changes are important examples of the set of practices he stresses, Alex brought up a number of smaller, less daunting changes. First is simply raising awareness, spreading the understanding that inequity does exist in Congress and cannot be ignored. Second, reminders to be equitable can go a long way. The National Speech and Debate Association equity statement which is placed at the top of their ballots could be put on ballots across the country. Moreover, students could have equity briefings as judges do before rounds. Third, efforts to diversify tabrooms must continue. One of the last “solutions” to inequity in Student Congress that Alex mentioned is that upperclassmen must be more inclusive. Students, especially juniors and seniors, are critical players in changing the inequitable culture of debate, which mirrors that of our larger society. I completely agree with Alex, we must recognize our responsibility and make choices to leave the event more equitable than when we entered it, even if that means simply congratulating a novice on a good speech at the next tournament. I am so grateful to Alex for sharing his insight with me! 

Presiding Officers and the Evolution of Congress

Interview 2, Kimberly and Kevin Berlat

Last week, I interviewed Kevin and Kimberly Berlat who have both been coaching Congressional Debate for years and have served on Tab Staffs around the country including Yale, Harvard, the Tournament of Champions and the NSDA National Tournament. I spoke with the Berlats seeking a more comprehensive understanding of why gender disparities persist in Congress and how different actors – coaches, judges, and students – can confront them.

The Berlats shared with me a unique historical perspective of the event and how it has evolved over time. While, regarding gender equity, Congress has a long way to go, my conversation with them uncovered how far it has come. They have witnessed a number of equity initiatives emerge, especially within the past decade. Primary among these are coach and judge diversification. Although tournaments are limited by the number of judges available to judge the many preliminary rounds, many now make an effort in the elimination rounds to select diverse judges from the proportionally larger judge pool. Mrs. Berlat noted that one of the most visible changes is simply how many women participate in the event. While decades ago, almost no women competed, it is not unusual now that there are as many women and men entered in tournaments. Another change she identifies is how women in Student Congress are coached compared to men. Today, all genders of debaters are largely encouraged to debate at the same speed, level of assertiveness, and natural pitch, but female debaters used to be coached down to, told to slow down, calm down, and speak lower.

Despite the equity improvements in Congress, the Berlats stressed that the event can still become more equitable and gave a few thoughts on how. Their first was more training for judges and students. Mr. Berlat explained how while experienced national judges are great because of their ability to evaluate intricate arguments potentially reducing the risk they default to gender biases, they are more susceptible to a different form of bias: confirmation bias. Experienced judges who have been judging all season or for years develop an idea of which schools and students are generally successful which leads them to look for positive attributes in those students’ performance warranting a higher rank rather than flaws warranting a lower rank, which is the case for how they judge lesser known competitors. Judge training could work against both gender and confirmation biases. The Berlats also brought up that students in Congress, due to the power the event’s structure affords them to determine outcomes for their peers, must be trained against biases as well. In each chamber, a “Presiding Officer” is elected by everyone in the chamber to lead the session via parliamentary procedure. Their primary role is selecting the order in which students give speeches in the session. Presiding Officers’ conscious discrimination or implicit bias had resulted in female-presenting and Black debaters being selected to speak last, putting them at a disadvantage. A more complete explanation of why Presiding Officer neglect hurts debaters from marginalized groups can be found in my paper. Anti-bias training is necessary to reform how Presiding Officers allocate speaking time.

The Berlats discussed a new policy that actually prevents Presiding Officer discrimination called “present precedents and recency.” This new system produces a randomized list which tells the Presiding Officer the order in which they are required to select speakers. This solution effectively eliminates the consequences of student bias, but it is challenging to implement technologically and almost automates the job of the PO which many feel should remain unregulated. Another potential solution to student-led discrimination is the use of “blind chambers” which hide the entry list and chamber assignments of a tournament until the day of the first session. The Berlats believe this is an important step in minimizing pre-tournament scheming about Presiding Officer elections and topic agendas which hurts debaters from smaller programs who are often excluded from such pre-round discussions.

I think perhaps the most interesting takeaway from my conversation with the Berlats was an observation raised by Mr. Berlat that, since around 1970, reform in Congressional Debate can be explained by the theory of punctuated disequilibrium. He explained how vast restructuring in the event has occurred about every 20 years but the event remains relatively unchanged in the time between rather than experiencing gradual changes. He speculates that we are approaching another stage of change, one that will be centered around equity. I am excited to see how his projection plays out! My incredible discussion with the Berlats reaffirmed the value of qualitative data collection. Thank you to the Berlats for sitting down with me!

An Origin of Debate Disparities and the Potential of Coaches

Interview 1, Rich Kawolics

Yesterday, I had my first interview! I spoke with Rich Kawolics, the speech and debate coach at the Laurel School in Ohio. A few years ago, he and his team of student researchers conducted a groundbreaking study into gender in a few other speech and debate events, primarily Public Forum debate. We talked about a number of details regarding our similar data collection and analysis methods. For example, we both faced the challenge of gender assumption but agreed that the number of students’ genders we had truly had to guess due to a lack of online presence was only around 1 in 50. One particular finding of his I was interested to learn more about is that, in Public Forum, female and male debaters shared almost identical win rates around 2003, in the early years of the event’s creation, but, over time, gender parity in the event has been declining. I found that, over the past four years, gender equity has not improved in Congressional debate in a significant way, but also that it has not declined, so I was interested to hear what Mr. Kawolics believes is responsible for the increasing inequity in Public Forum. 

He hypothesizes that the infusion of technical debate elements from Policy debate around 2010, especially by summer debate institutes, has promoted debate styles and norms that capitalize on implicit biases against women. The quicker, sometimes incomprehensible, rate of speaking (“spreading”) and more assertive style adopted from Policy may hurt women due to their higher voices and higher likelihood that judges will perceive their assertiveness as overly aggressive. Mr. Kawolics thinks that the debate camps that promote this style of debate are also often creating judges that share the same biases. His published data shows that young male judges, usually recent debate alumni are actually the most likely to eliminate female public forum debaters, but he also has unpublished evidence which suggests that, among college students who used to debate and now judge tournaments, judges who have worked at a summer debate camp are more likely to advance male teams and eliminate female teams than judges who have not worked at a camp. This is also a reason why Mr. Kawolics predicts online debate might be more equitable than in-person debate: older and more experienced judges can now judge tournaments without taking time off from their jobs or family. He thinks that this diversification of the judge pool could work against the biases of the young male judges that are so prevalent at national circuit tournaments. Congress has yet to experience the same adoption of policy elements, so I don’t know that his predictions are perfectly applicable, but his wisdom is important for understanding where gender disparities in debate originate and why they persist.

I was very curious to learn about the response to his research from the debate community. Mr. Kawolics said pretty much what I expected: the response was mixed. The National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) made numerous changes such as using anti-bias language on judges’ ballots and creating equity officers. However, the Tournament of Champions and other national circuit tournaments were not as responsive. Learning of the NSDA’s specific actions towards equity following his research gives me hope! The final question I asked Mr. Kawolics in closing was what coaches, tournament directors, and students can do to make debate more equitable. In answering, he stressed the importance of the role of coaches. We are quick to blame tournament directors for a lack of policy or judges for their biases against women, so it was interesting to hear what he thought coaches could improve upon. He had two main points: first, that coaches should judge more tournaments because judging gives them first hand knowledge of the state of the circuit and the inequities at tournaments, but also, simply, because we need more experienced judges to work against the biases of less experienced judges. Second, he said coaches need to work more actively against their biases in event placement. It is an incredibly harmful stereotype that women and Black students are more suited to the “easier” speech events like Dramatic Interpretation rather than debate events. However, it’s a stereotype that often monopolizes coaches’ decisions about what event to place new freshmen in. In order to close the entry gap in debate events, coaches must begin pushing students into events based on their interests and talents, not their identity. I am so grateful for Mr. Kawolics’s insight! What a great first interview!

Broader Importance

How might my research be relevant beyond high school debate?

This is the second question I have pondered over the past two weeks. As I’ve mentioned, my end goal is not just to expose gender disparities in congressional debate, but to provoke national action against them: the implementation of more equitable policies, implicit bias training for judges, etc. While the prospect of a more equitable speech and debate community is important, I couldn’t help but think perhaps my work serves a larger purpose or, at least, fits within a broader context. Previously, I had limited my examination of literature to that which specifically concerned gender parity in speech and debate. Last week, I expanded that scope to include gender in US congress because, just from following congressional races and reading the news, there appear to be some fascinating parallels between US congress and student congress. 

In investigating this comparison, I learned that while some research finds women win congressional races at lower rates than men (Pike and Galinsky, 2021), the primary problem is a lack of female candidacy in races in the first place (Shames, 2013). Disparities in both the participation rate and win rate for women in US congress are consistent with my findings: less women participate in tournaments than men and when they do, they are less likely to advance to elimination and final rounds. These parallels are certainly striking in how they expose gender inequity in political spheres to transcend age groups, but even more exciting to me was discovering that increasing female participation in high school speech and debate could potentially increase rates of female candidacy in congressional races later in life. Why? Because early political exposure and sense of competition are critical factors in whether women consider running for congress (Lawless and Pearson, 2013). Correcting disparities in high school congress could encourage more women to participate. Higher levels of female involvement would make them more likely to run for congress later on. Of course, drawing this link requires much more study but still an exciting discovery!