Gender, race bias still a reality in collegiate competitive debate

Petrina Chan / The Tufts Daily

The world of collegiate competitive debate has recently come under scrutiny, as participants report experiencing unfair scoring based on race and gender. According to women in the Tufts Debate Society, judges sometimes deliver biased rulings due to the largely white male-dominated atmosphere of competitive debate.

Tufts Debate Society competes in debates within the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) almost every weekend, according to first-year Debate Society member Alexandria Hayman. The APDA’s members include several colleges across the nation, as it provides the standard ruling for competitions and conducts standings to rank each team. Within each competition, students from the host school of every tournament are often the judges for that debating round.

“One of the good things about APDA is that because it’s all college students, people are very conscious of the fact that gender bias is a thing,” Hayman said. “But at the same time it definitely still happens.”

Vice President of Operations of Tufts Debate Society, junior Anna Weissman joined the debate team during her first year at Tufts and has encountered instances of gender bias during tournaments off campus.

“During my first year on the team, there was often implicit bias when being judged by both male and female judges if I was the only female in the round,” Weissman said. “Often times it is easier to perceive males as having a stronger voice, and therefore despite the quality of arguments being made, speaking style and presence can influence rounds.”

APDA seems to be cognizant of these historical ruling biases, and has set in place several measures to counteract them. According to APDA’s website, the organization has introduced and revamped several initiatives to counter both race and gender biases. For example, APDA defines the mission of its Gender Empowerment Initiative (GEI), formerly known as the Women’s Initiative, as “[creating] awareness about issues that women, trans, and non-binary individuals face in debate, as well as [empowering] those individuals and [providing] education for the entire ADPA community.”

During competitions, the ADPA also provides Equal Opportunity Facilitators (EOFs) at each tournament in case a debater feels they are dealing with a bias incident, Weissman explained. This ensures that bias incidents are handled more efficiently by the ADPA. As reactive positions, the EOFs hold discussions to prevent future bias incidents and generate more awareness about potential biases that occur.

“There are many checks in place to make sure that bias incidents are not occurring,” she said. “Of course, sometimes implicit bias does happen in judging, and there are still many more white men than women or people of color on the circuit, but APDA and the schools in it, including Tufts Debate Society, are doing everything in their power to help the situation.”

Despite the efforts of the APDA, gender and race biases are still obstacles for minority participants competing with their white male peers. According to Hayman, there have been several rounds where she felt she was unfairly given lower scores than male competitors.

“There have been rounds where the judges told me I did something really well but I still spoke way lower than the other people I was debating with,” Hayman said. “The discrepancy between the point value of my speak and the actual things I did well in my speak were too big for it not to be something related to that. The interesting thing about APDA is that they recognize that it’s a problem, and they are actively trying to combat it, but at the same time you can only do so much. So part of it is that you have to deal with it, which sucks.”

Gender bias is not the only factor that has affected the Debate Society under ADPA’s tournament style, however. During a tournament round with a fellow Tufts student who speaks in an accent that is neither British nor American, Hayman said that they both encountered questionable rulings from the judges.

“The judge specifically told us that I organized very well and my comments were constructive,” Hayman said. “My partner gave a really great speech when he was member of government and we both were scored one or two points lower than the team that won in the first round. Also the team that won dropped a lot of our points — in the ADPA, it matters [that] you respond to every single point and they dropped a lot of our points, but they still won, and they were speaking a lot higher than us. Part of it is, yes, I am biased because I lost, but… to an extent you can’t explain that.”

Unfortunately, this is not unique to debate; bias is inherent to all parts of society, Professor of Political Science Richard Eichenberg said, who is currently teaching a class entitled Gender Issues in World Politics.

“I can tell you as a broad generalization that people in their perceptions of others do make distinctions based on gender and race,” Eichenberg said. “It makes a difference in how they evaluate their ideas and credibility, which is what debate is all about.”

Eichenberg noted two recent studies which reveal several implications about gender bias in relation to collegiate teaching evaluations. One study, conducted by professors of University of California, Berkeley and the Sorbonne in Paris, found that students tended to rate their male professors higher than their female professors even if the female professor was the technically better instructor. This was assessed by exams taken at the beginning and end of the semester to quantify student’s progress in the course.

The other study, conducted by North Carolina State University, found that college students in online courses tended to give teachers with traditionally male names higher ratings, even when the instructor was actually a woman.

“The implications for the debate world are pretty significant,” Eichenberg said. “The bottom line is here; and I’m not really sure that I understand the causal mechanism. Students, and this might very well include female students, tend to give higher evaluations to men than women in a job that requires a lot of public speaking, answering questions, and the like, which is a setting that’s not too different from the debate world. It’s probably a little more adversarial in the debate world. The implication to me is that there is more than likely some gender bias going on in the evaluations of debaters.”

Eichenberg pointed to social psychology and the aforementioned studies on teacher evaluations as evidence of biases which are deeply ingrained in everyone.

“For me to claim that I don’t have any preconceptions based on race, or gender, or national origin would be a lie because I am a human being,” Eichenberg said.

To put this in the context of the ongoing Democratic nomination race between former Secretary of States Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Eichenberg notes how this ingrained gender bias is playing out in current politics, a platform which, like debating, prioritizes argument and speech.

“On the marginal side [of] women politicians and candidates, quite a part of elections do face a double standard that’s not irrelevant from the debate world,” Eichenberg said. “If a woman is calm and demure and deferential in her political argumentation, she is perceived as weak. If, however, she is strong and assertive and even argumentative — and debaters have to be argumentative — then they are perceived as … It’s not a nice word.”

To combat this, Eichenberg acknowledged the importance of having a greater presence and diversity of women in politics in order to begin changing the double-standard and challenging ingrained psychological preconceptions.

“I think there is some extent to which having women of different backgrounds and origins, with different personalities and different styles, will sort of normalize the fact that they belong there,” Eichenberg said. “And so applying one standard or another to a woman because she’s a woman will become outmoded at some [point].”

According to Weissman, Tufts Debate Society’s female members have organized ‘girls’ nights’ to foster better relationships with one another as part of the traditionally male-dominated world of debate. They have also made it a goal encourage more women to join the team, in order to narrow the gender gap between men and women.

“We are currently working up ways in which we can recruit more women for tryouts next fall,” Weissman said.

Tufts Debate Society is currently planning on sending a team to the North American Women’s Debating Championships in March to provide even more incentive and opportunity for female debaters, which Weissman hopes will also encourage women on the team.

“The gender gap has been something that has existed in the world of debate for a long time, but I believe we are taking all the necessary steps towards changing that,” she said. “As a female freshman two years ago, I had very little confidence. But it was two male debaters, who are now seniors on the team, [that] encouraged me and made sure I was in a comfortable environment to build my confidence and debate skills.”

Hayman explained how ADPA’s efforts to fix the biases as well as to encourage more female debaters has affected her experience in debating so far.

“Being able to look around and know that there are other women that are having the same problems and same successes is a very motivating thing,” Hayman said. “But … there is no way that one organization, which is problematic [as] with any organization, is going to fix all the problems. You have to change the culture, and that takes a long time.”


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