Rachel Kane, a senior is the former president for GW’s Parliamentary Debate Society. Joey Schnide, a senior, is the former vice president for GW’s Parliamentary Debate Society.
A recent opinion piece criticized the decision of the George Washington Parliamentary Debate Society to hold a gender minorities tournament, likening it to the “separate but equal institutions” of the Jim Crow era.
While we do not presume any ill intent in the critique, we must acknowledge that comparing our efforts to create a debate tournament for women and non-binary debaters to segregation is an exceptionally serious accusation. We are wholly convinced that our decision to host a gender minorities tournament will empower women and non-binary people in the college debate community.
Any individual who is not male faces significant discrimination on the parliamentary debate circuit. Parliamentary debate is a two-person team activity and women often find their arguments attributed to their male partners by sexist judges and opponents. Non-cisgender male debaters are frequently assigned lower speaker scores as well due to sexist attitudes by judges.
In order to make it to out-rounds, debaters need comparatively higher speaker scores than their peers. Data over the past 10 years shows women have been proportionally underrepresented in out-rounds. This suggests there is a real impact to institutionalized sexism within debate. Over the course of a tournament, this discrepancy can be the difference between a woman receiving a speaker award or not.
Most non-cisgender debaters have even more specified sexism anecdotes. As a result, roughly two-thirds of the league is male. Creating a space where women and gender minorities have to tolerate fewer microaggressions leads to a better tournament experience and increases the likelihood that gender minorities continue to participate in debate. Continuing to act as if structural barriers don’t exist will only alienate and discourage retention of non-male participants.
While the column asserts that gender minority tournaments will “reinforce the negative stereotypes that women and gender minorities cannot compete against men,” it doesn’t provide any reason this is likely to be the case. The gender minority tournament is based on the same principle as countless women in STEM networking groups or the University’s own Women’s Leadership Program.
It is essential to create spaces where gender minorities can find support, meet mentors and peers and feel empowered by seeing successful women. The people who compete at the gender minority tournament are still going to be competing against men at dozens of other competitions throughout the year. It is our sincere hope that friendships formed at our tournament will form the basis of a strong support network that will help women and gender minorities navigate the rampant sexism in the debate community.
It’s misguided to assume any one action the debate community can take will be the silver bullet that fixes sexism in debate. Combatting years of structural sexism in the debate community requires structural changes like creating a tournament for women in conjunction with serious conversations in the community about the role of sexism in debate.
For the tournament to receive sanctions by the American Parliamentary Debate Association, two-thirds of member schools had to vote to approve it. Student leaders at dozens of schools understand that the tournament is not intended as a crutch for women and gender minorities but rather a space to empower them and help them succeed at every other tournament during the seasons.
Perhaps in future years some debaters will question why there is a gender minorities tournament. We envision this will be a teaching moment and a time to explain the structural sexism embedded deep in the debate community. We hope that one day the gender minorities tournament will no longer be necessary. But until that day comes, wishing sexism away is not an option.