Molly Hill is a senior in high school at Polytechnic School in Pasadena. She has been debating since 7th grade in the HSPDP, Public Forum, and World Schools formats.
I’ve been debating and participating in other public speaking competitions from 7th grade through my senior year of high school. I’ve primarily focused on HSPDP (and MSPDP in middle school), but I have also participated in Public Forum and World Schools debate along with Moot Court and Ethics Bowl.
In that time, I’ve debated in every speaker position though I have focused on positions later in the round, such as 2nd and 3rd speaker in HSPDP. My experience in all forms of public speaking and debate has been overwhelmingly positive. Aside from skills gained in research, public speaking, and argumentation, debating has been a way to gain friends, confidence, and valuable experiences with teamwork.
In general, I think I’ve been lucky in that I have not experienced a huge difference in my debating experience based on my gender. Most of what I have witnessed has not been unique to debate: female debaters tend to be more harshly criticized for their speaking style, especially when speaking intensely. Perhaps I’m fortunate in that my speaking style tends to be naturally quieter and less emotional, which, while not inherently better or worse than a passionate speaking style, has subjected me to less gender-based criticism.
One challenge that can affect female debaters of all speaking styles is having their authority questioned. In Moot Court, for example, judges interrupt speakers directly to ask them questions. While not a universal occurrence, there have been cases in which I’ve noticed judges pressing female-identifying mooters more while being more readily accepting of male speakers’ responses to questions. Similarly, in formats where debaters ask each other questions, male debaters are sometimes much more dismissive when questioning and responding to female opponents.
Finally, clothes and appearances, in general, can be more of a challenge for female-identifying debaters. In most formats, all speakers have to dress fairly formally, but I do think there is a stronger pressure on female debaters to look presentable in their clothes as well as in their general decorum.
One need look no further than the 2020 vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence for a fairly glaring example of the differing standards for women’s and men’s appearances.
All that being said, I would absolutely encourage female-identifying students interested in debate to pursue that interest and to be themselves as they do so. Many of the best and most successful debaters I’ve known have been female, and they have achieved that success by following and improving on their natural speaking style and continuing to debate regardless of certain judges’ questionable standards.