Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Thoughts on Female Inclusivity in Dutch Debating

I am heavily indebted for this post to Bionda Merckens, Karin Merckens and Gigi Gil, with whom I
Kathrine Schwitzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon
shared several conversations on this topic while at Euros and before; Rebecca Meredith for compiling her report on sexism in debating; the people who compiled the statistics for male and female participation at Euros; and the many excellent contributions made by various people at the EUDC Women's Forum this year.
In many ways I am just the messenger, not the author of this article.

Last March in Glasgow two female debaters were heckled and booed in a final by members of the audience simply for the sake of their gender. The offenders did not make any attempt at an apology afterwards.
Two years before, a male speaker in an outround of a Dutch competition made a sexist remark at the start of his speech, for which he immediatedly apologized afterwards. While these examples highlight a different approach towards offensive gendered remarks, and in some ways we can hope that the Dutch circuit is a safe haven for female participants, we are far from perfect yet.

If you'd ask me on the spot if the Dutch circuit was free from sexism, my honest reply would be "I don't know". We have never attempted to compile a report such as this shocking compilation of responses gathered by Rebecca Meredith, Matt Hezell and Clara Spera. We have never had an equity complaint lodged at a Dutch competition, mostly because we have never had an equity officer at a Dutch national competition. The only thing I can go by is anecdote; and I have plenty of anecdotes of (older) male debaters harassing female freshers and (hopefully) unintended chauvinistic remarks. I have heard admissions of some girls that they found themselves unwelcome in male-dominated societies. Obviously, as I am blessed with male privilege, I am not privy to all of these remarks. And also, regrettably, these stories are similar to stories I have heard from non-debate friends. But the fact that there remains persistent misogynism in wider society doesn't excuse us from not challenging it as much as possible.

Sexism, however, is only one symptom of a much wider problem we are now paying attention to on the international circuit; the problem of not being inclusive. Sexism, just like other more entrenched and persistent social conceptions, such as gendered expectations and the acceptance of sexist language, is one of the factors that may contribute to less female debaters existing and participating in our community, and participating with less pleasure than they could've.

The main purpose of this article, for me, is to attract debate about inclusivity in Dutch debating. Yet there are still a lot of (influential) people in Dutch debate who don't believe that we have an inclusivity problem. So we may need data that supports my claim that Dutch debating can be more inclusive. Luckily, that is what I have compiled.

Ratio of Male and Female participation rates in national Dutch competitions

I have compiled data of all national Dutch university competitions in the 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 academic years. As this data should portray a picture of Dutch debating, I have not collected data on any competition at which international teams were present (e.g. UCU, Leiden and Roosevelt). Nor have I collected data on competitions that weren't open to all (the Mace and the Masters).
The data has been compiled in roughly the same manner as the data that has been compiled for the EUDC gender breakdown. This means that I have went with the assumption that a boy's name means a boy, and vice versa. In cases of doubt (names such as Anne, Kim or Renee) I have tried to track down the person on Facebook to confirm his/her sex. In the cases of a dummy, this speaker has been omitted if no name was given, or ranked only once if this dummy spoke by his/herself.
I have colour-coded all the tabs so as to give a good oversight, but will only be publishing the results as to protect people's privacy.

I suggest that we treat any result where the participation of one gender is less than 40% as worrying, as this would indicate that the other gender is represented by more than 3/5ths, and this is a sufficiently high bar that the result, when randomised, would happen very infrequently.
Moreover, statistics like these need to be interpreted by social research that examines causes, not just figures. Plenty of data and research suggests that lower female participation rates are due to (gendered) social barriers or active sexism, in both fields of sport and labour. Even if, as some data from CBS suggests, women are less inclined to spend time and money on hobbies, are less politically engaged and read less news media, the causations for those statistics may be gendered preconceptions; it also may mean that if those are the causes for fewer female participation, we should seek to "sell" our activity in a way that may overcome these initial barriers.

The Data

TournamentNumbers MaleNumbers FemaleTotal NumbersPercentage MalePercentage FemalePercentage Total
Kalliope 201340165671,43%28,57%100,00%
NK Debatteren 2013683210068,00%32,00%100,00%
DTU 201348247266,67%33,33%100,00%
BP-toernooi 201347257265,28%34,72%100,00%
Leiden Novices 201241226365,08%34,92%100,00%
Cicero Toernooi 201246287462,16%37,84%100,00%
NK debatteren 2012835313661,03%38,97%100,00%
DTU 201266309668,75%31,25%100,00%
BDT 201246348057,50%42,50%100,00%
BP-toernooi 201248328060,00%40,00%100,00%
Leiden Novices 201137205764,91%35,09%100,00%
Cicero Toernooi 201137256259,68%40,32%100,00%
Total 2012/201329014743766,36%33,64%100,00%
Total 2011/201231719451162,04%37,96%100,00%


Out of the 12 tournaments, only 3 had a higher female participation rate than 40%, and at no tournaments did more women than men compete. This indicates a structural lack of female competitors.
Over the course of the two seasons ranked, female participation actually slightly decreased, both over the two years as well as near the end of each years.

This dataset is limited by no currently existing data on participating judges or organizers. Numbers from EUDC seem to suggest that for the Netherlands our participation rate is evened out somewhat by a higher ratio of female-to-male judges.
However, even if it were the case that there are more female than male judges, this may mean that more women are hesitant to speak. Given that we give most praise to speakers and speakers are at the centre of our activity, this may already be cause for concern.

Furthermore, we may need information on how many female versus male speakers there are on the school circuit, to see when a gender gap arises. We also may need data on the amount of male and female members of the debating societies in the Netherlands, to see if this gap is created due to women being hesitant to attend competitions or due to failing recruitment policies.

This dataset also doesn't rank how well female speakers do vis-a-vis male speakers. Anecdotally, I noticed while compiling this report that there are often more men in the top 20, as well as at the bottom of the tab. This remark has also been made by someone else in a discussion on the Irish Debating FB-group on a discussion of participation rates in Ireland.
Compiling data on average speaks for men and women may be a useful further research to note if there is a potential bias in evaluating speeches given by women, or a lack of training efforts aimed at women.

Obviously, we don't only have a problem with representation of women; anecdotally, ethnic and religious minorities are also vastly underrepresented. The underrepresentation of women may well be worse, however, as in contrast to those minorities, women currently make up the majority of university students. This is not to scapegoat these other issues, and I do believe we should earnestly try to tackle problems of discrimination and racial bias as well. Curently a survey is circling Facebook asking people to report any incidences of discrimination they may have encountered. I wholeheartedly recommend anyone who ever had the misfortune to be victim of discrimination on the circuit to report this. The compilers will allow you complete anonymity.
Collecting data on racial issues is however more complicated than the tab analysis I have just done, as you can't just go by names or FB profile photo's: it would require individuals to self-identify as an ethnic or religious minority, and thus would require a data gathering project over a longer period of time.

Suggestions to address this issue

As can be followed from the discussion, we don't have enough information yet to determine the exact causes of lower female participation in the Netherlands. However, by speculating on a few likely causes we may come to some useful suggestions. Of course, suggestions from the wider community are more than welcome. Here are three easy fixes:

If the problem is sexism in a broad sense, we may need an equity team
Scratch that: even if there is no sexism problem, we still need an equity team. Equity is about making individuals feel safe and have a place where they can go with their concerns. It is a fantastically important safeguard for all kind of vicious behaviour, and I wonder why we haven't had any before.
Karin Merckens will be equity officer at the Roosevelt Open next October, and is already drafting a comprehensive policy for that competition. She has said that she is willing to share this document with other competitions in hope to make it a standard equity policy for the Netherlands.  Jennie Hope, Women's Officer for the UK debate circuit, has also drafted a standardised equity policy that she hopes to release soon. I hope more competitions in the Netherlands will follow and appoint an equity officer.

Police unfriendliness and nastiness within the societies
This recommendation may be especially helpful to female freshers, who for various reasons seem to be less likely to exist or more likely to drop out, but should be good advice as a whole. The first competitions in the Netherlands start after two months; before that, the atmosphere within societies can be a deal-breaker. Providing a friendly environment, and explicitly ensuring that there is someone within the society that people can go to for pastoral support is crucial.
I am personally pushing for a gentleman's agreement in our society that older debaters try not to actively hit on freshers during the first term. The power dynamics at play when an older member tries to "have his/her way" with a new member can be revolting and deeply unfair.

Increase female visibility in societies
Try to have female members at your recruitment stands, on your open evenings and during your novice workshops. Think about how you may want to sell debate; a German debating society noted that when they changed the description of debate from a "competitive activity" to a "problem-solving activity", female interest sparked. (MDR volume 9, p.16)
Linked to this is that you may want to try gently pushing your female speakers to attend competitions. In the fall term there are plenty of friendly one-day competitions such as Cicero and Leiden Novices, as well as two-day competitions at Roosevelt and UCU that may require a bit more effort for freshers to want to go to.


Preliminary data suggests that we suffer from a lack of female participation in the Dutch circuit. This means that we are missing out on great speakers, judges and human beings. The Dutch circuit, similar to other circuits such as Germany, the UK, Ireland as well as the international circuit, may want to look at ways to overcome this problem and increase female participation as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. See for further discussion the SevenTwenty FB page