Sexism In High School Debate | KALW

Sexism In High School Debate

Feb 10, 2020

When it comes to running for office, there are certain standards women have to deal with that men don’t. Hannah Ni, a senior at Presentation High School in San Jose, says young, female debaters like her face similar instances of sexism and misogyny. 

During the 2016 election, my friends and I were super excited. Hillary Clinton was the first woman in history to have a real shot at winning the United States presidency. Finally, we could have someone who looked like us in the most powerful position in the country. 

My teammates and I have been called out for wearing pants instead of skirts. We've been called out for being too aggressive.

But as I watched how some media outlets covered the presidential race, I noticed Hillary Clinton was treated much differently than her male opponents. Pundits accused her of sounding shrill and shouting, made derogatory comments, and they questioned her likeability.

The way Clinton was treated felt all too familiar to me because I’m on a debate team at an all-girls school. 

Why I Joined Debate 

My teammates and I have been called out for wearing pants instead of skirts. We’ve been called out for being too aggressive. And we’ve been called demeaning names like sweetheart or bitch by male debaters and judges. 

When I joined debate freshman year, I didn’t know this stuff was going to happen. I just knew that I wanted to debate. Because where else was a high schooler going to find a space to talk about universal background checks or market-rate housing? Where else was a teenage girl allowed to voice her thoughts for an uninterrupted 45 minutes and finally be heard? 

I thought debate was going to be the most empowering and intellectually stimulating experience. But I soon discovered debate could also be used to embarrass other people and make them feel inferior and insignificant. 

Objectified By Male Opponents 

Megan Munce was one of my teammates on the debate team. 

"My first experience with sexism, really, was in high school debate"

“I went to an all-female high school, where I was really fortunate to have a lot of female role models. So my first experience with sexism, really, was in high school debate, getting comments from judges about what my voice sounded like,” Munce says. “Or what I was wearing, things male debaters weren’t really getting comments on.” 

Over the years, she has been objectified repeatedly by members of the debate community. When she was 16, she was at a local tournament when she ran into two accomplished male debaters. She later learned they had called her a temptress and joked about what it would be like to have sex with her. 

“There were so many instances like that where people made disgusting comments about me,” she says. “And it left me feeling like they don't care about me because I'm somewhat of a good debater. They only care about me for what I look like.” 

She often thought about quitting. 

“It was kind of like at the age of 16 my body wasn’t my own anymore,” Munce remembers. “It belonged to the people who were looking at me and making those sorts of comments about me.” 

The Judges 

Female debaters are twice as likely to be called out for aggression. And if this happens, and they're much more likely to lose.

Treatment by competitors is one issue. Judging is another. Unlike other activities where you can just count the number of baskets you make, you win debate rounds if your judge has a better perception of you than your opponents. So if judges think your voice sounds screechy or, your dress doesn’t fit their taste, they can mark you down even if your arguments are stronger. 

According to a study, female debaters are twice as likely to be called out for aggression. And if this happens, and they’re much more likely to lose. Nearly 70 percent of public forum debaters who make it are male. 

This issue of being judged unfairly is true for women in general. Jay Newton-Small is the author of "Broad Influence: How Women are Changing the Way America Works." She says it’s historically been uncommon in the United States to see women in power. And that media coverage during the 2016 election was a clear example of that. 

“Bernie Sanders can yell at you for forty minutes and you're like, ‘Yeah yell at me for forty more!’” Newton-Small says. “Hillary raises her voice and yells at you and you're like, ‘Oh my god, why is mom screaming at me.’”

Finding My Inner Elizabeth Warren 

Now we’re in another election cycle. More women than ever before entered the primary race. 

When I see Senator Elizabeth Warren debate, I am in awe of how assertive she is about her policies and beliefs. I was happily surprised to find out that she was a once high school debater like me. And since she’s had more media coverage, my coaches have started to tell me to channel my inner Elizabeth Warren. It’s been really awesome seeing someone who was once in my position trying to be the leader of our country. 

If my friends and I don't feel comfortable speaking in a debate round because of discriminatory backlash, how can we feel comfortable speaking up when we're older and break barriers?

It matters how young girls are treated during high school debate. Newton-Small says high school debate is the perfect breeding ground for teenagers like me to learn how to speak up about important issues for the rest of out lives.

Working Hard And Speaking Up 

“Feeling comfortable speaking publicly is the first step to running for office in many ways,” she says. “And, I think, in general, the first step to being a leader.”

If my friends and I don’t feel comfortable speaking in a debate round because of discriminatory backlash, how can we feel comfortable speaking up when we’re older and break barriers? 

There are thousands of girls involved in speech and debate around the country. Despite the challenges we face, we won’t stop speaking up, and working hard. My friends and I will continue to research foreign affairs and social injustices. We’ll put together our arguments and practice our speeches, and wait for our next debate round to begin.