Westridge Speech and Debate Team
Speaks Up for Gender Inequity
By Tiffany C.
April 23, 2019
On most days after lunch, several Upper School students hastily disperse into different rooms above the Commons where they nervously pace with palms clenched across their waists. Some absently bite their nails and rub their sweaty palms against their nicely pleated khaki Westridge skirts. Others sit alone at the tables with their foreheads resting on their hands and gather a few minutes to clear their minds as other members practice their arguments for an upcoming tournament. Welcome to the behind-the-scenes preparations of the Westridge Speech and Debate team.
Westridge’s large speech and debate team includes about 40 members from the Middle and Upper School. Students decide whether they want to specialize in either speech or debate. While Westridge teams frequently score well in competitions, both teams have commented on the sexism women often face from judges and competitors alike.
“It's really, really commonly cited. The debate is a boy's club,” said Hattie B., ’20, co-captain of the Westridge Debate Team. Based on a survey Rachel H., ’19, captain of the Speech and Debate team, conducted for her CAP project, 75% of women surveyed have experienced sexism in debate competitions.
Allen Abbott, who founded the Quarry Lane School’s national-level debate program, plays an active role in the speech and debate community. He conducted a thorough statistical analysis on gender inequality in public forum debate, the most widespread form of debate where two-on-two teams debate current event topics. His 2018 report, “Gender inequality in speech and debate,” revealed that “only 38% of competitors are women, a significant disparity, but one that is improving at a rate of about 11% annually.”
Khamani Griffin, Assistant Coach of Westridge’s Speech and Debate Team, said, “There are sexist comments that are made to the girls all the time whether they choose to disclose them or not, and unfortunately, I feel like there is a lot of normalizing this in Speech and Debate.”
Judges play a big role in perpetuating sexism. “High school boys will just say rude, offensive things. But what's more problematic from my perspective is when judges are doing it because they are the ones who have power. So there's not really anything you can say to them. They sort of control your fate,” Rachel remarked.
While overt sexism may be rare, the way women are seen by the judges is more or less influenced by societal sexism. “It's never direct by judges or anything like that, but it's usually very subdued comments that are written on ballots, but it's not inherently sexist. It's more like it's a societal viewpoint that we have towards women. So, it's not like a blatantly kind of sexist way, but it's because of how we view women,” said Coach Nicole Dalton, the head coach of the Westridge Speech and Debate Team since 2016.
“I had a judge a couple of weeks ago call me a Barbie doll, which was just like, ‘What!’ I'm working hard and trying to speak about something important, but I was only being seen for my looks. And then he actually gave me a very low rank and called me a Barbie doll. So I was just upset about my work being diminished in that way,” stated Rachel.
Many female debaters who encounter sexism or hostile discrimination, not only from high school boys but also from biased parents and judges, ultimately choose to forego the activity. Rachel shared that debaters have encountered judges and parents who refer to women debaters as “aggressive,” “shrill,” and even “bitchy.”
“The way we imagine spaces where sexism exists, especially in school activities, is that adults are supposed to be there to minimize exclusion and to help foster inclusion. It's sometimes like we’re inviting adults in our spaces who are unwilling to do that, which to me sort of is, to some extent, the root of the problem, which is that like adults and people in positions of power are unwilling to stop any of that from happening,” said Ruby M., ’20, co-captain of the Westridge Debate Team.
The problem isn’t just local to Westridge or even Southern California. “We're all going through it together. We have friends at Flintridge Prep, La Salle, co-ed schools all around the country. We talk to those teams a lot, and the same stuff happens to them,” said Rachel. Coach Nicole Dalton shared, “I have male students at Flintridge Prep, and they don't get as many of those comments in terms of aggression.”
Although sexism in the speech and debate community discourages many female competitors from participating in the activity, as of recently, more action is being taken to address the issues female-identifying and non-binary people face in the speech and debate face. Beyond Resolved, a year-round mentor program, works to create a debate community that is more inclusive towards female-identifying people in public forum debate.
Hattie B., ’20, is a member of the program’s advisory board, which provides positive role models for younger debaters in order to reduce the number of females dropping out of public forum. Westridge is doing its own part to support women in the speech and debate community. For her CAP project, Rachel founded The Westridge All-Womxn’s Tournament in 2018 to encourage young women in the speech and debate community.
“[The Westridge All-Womxn’s Tournament] is just to give women who aren’t on teams like Westridge the space to have that community. And then for girls, even at Westridge, to have a tournament where they for once don’t have to worry about getting a comment on their clothes or on being too shrill or any other sexist norms … It’s just supposed to be a safe space for everyone to practice debate and build that safe community,” said Rachel. The tournament is designed for all female-identifying participants, judges and competitors alike. Judges receive training on implicit bias. Last year’s tournament included 8 teams, while this year’s April 6 Westridge All-Womxn’s Tournament included 15 teams. In 2019, Rachel passed her CAP project on to Hattie and Ruby, so she was able to attend the tournament as a volunteer judge and panelist.
Rachel elaborated, “Seeing some women who debated at the 2018 tournament judging at the 2019 tournament demonstrated the positive cycle of female empowerment. Women who were mentored and empowered last year are now helping others, which creates a long-lasting, sustainable change. We were able to have a broad discussion about conducting discourse regarding structural violence without commodifying the bodies and/or experiences of the real people affected by such violence. While this discussion was definitely not as fun as the sisterhood/empowerment aspects of the tournament, it was a much-needed conversation, and I am very glad that my CAP helped facilitate such important discourse.”
Westridge’s All-Womxn Tournament provides a safe space for participants to engage in the activity of debate. However, it also provides opportunities to offer support to female-identifying debaters, to empower them, and to help them encourage change in the debate community at large. “The tournament kind of gives people, especially people from our team that have talked to me about it, … it confirms for them like, ‘Okay, other people are going through this, this is a real thing.’ And it kind of just gives them a place to talk about it, which is really good,” said Coach Nicole Dalton.
Coach Khamani Griffin, who recently joined the Westridge Speech and Debate team, also said, “Sometimes in the debate space it feels like them being women comes secondary. I feel like they should endorse and embrace who they are in the debate space, and I feel like the [Westridge All-Womxn’s Tournament], at least what I have heard of it, seems like it is doing a lot of good on a self-esteem level. It seems like it is just all-around a good thing for them.”
Rachel remains committed to debating and to encouraging women to participate in debate despite the difficulties. “One of the competitors told me she was going to quit debate, and then after our tournament, she decided to stick with it, so that was really motivational for me. That's why we have to keep doing this, to keep young women in debate because they're going to make all the difference two years, three years from now,” commented Rachel.
It’s difficult to assess how much of an impact Westridge School has on gender inequity in speech and debate, if it even has one at all. However, student effort and participation make an impact of their own. Coach Nicole Dalton offered an optimistic assessment of progress in the speech and debate community: “I think that it has gotten better and better. So every year the statistics improve because more people are aware, especially in our own local league.”