The Cambridge Union’s reaction to the Glasgow sexism scandal has been met with approval, but many believe that the incident is symptomatic of a greater, underlying problem.
Every weekend, university level debate competitions are held across universities throughout the UK, and often internationally. The Cambridge Inter-Varsity is one of the most important events in the debating calendar.
Competitions to decide who the best debaters in the world are also held, hosted in countries such as Turkey, Botswana, the Philippines and Germany. Sexism is endemic, in both overt and subtler forms.
The problem, it seems, starts in schools, where there is a noticeable lack of female participants, and a predominance of white, upper-middle class competitors. Schools like Dulwich, Westminster and St Paul’s dominate the competition. There are some obvious reasons for this: debating is traditionally a public school hobby, and the schools provide paid debating coaches, as well as funding to compete in competitions.
At university level, more women start taking part; some compete at the highest level and are respected judges. Equally, however, there is a high drop-off rate amongst female debaters, many of whom try debating for the first time in their first year at university.
Many feel that this is because sexism in debating is still rife. Women’s speaking styles are often criticised as sounding ‘hysterical’ or ‘less convincing’. At the other end of the spectrum, they’re regarded as ‘dull’ or ‘weak’. Moreover, the debating world considers males as the experts in subjects such as economics; female debaters have suggested that they feel pressured to hand over the handling of such topics to their male counterparts.
The weekend’s events in Glasgow are an extreme example of the misogyny that female debaters face. Clara Spera, Debate Officer at the Cambridge Union, explains that this is not an unusual occurrence:
Kitty Parker-Brooks, a top ranking judge at the Ancients Competition in Glasgow, told The Tab that she is no stranger to everyday misogyny prevalent in the debating world:
“It’s sometimes frustrating the assumptions that get made. As a female speaker, if you get very, very good speaker points in one round, quite often people will say ‘it’s because the judge fancied her.’”
She was near the hecklers at the Glasgow University Union, and sat next to the highest ranked debater in the world – also a woman.
“We were sitting behind them and they kept saying stuff like ‘shame’ or ‘boo’ and then they would sit back and mutter ‘shame, woman’ under their breath, and other derogatory things. Other members of the Glasgow Union were sitting around them; they could hear but they didn’t do much.” Instead, those around Kitty tried to diffuse the situation, excusing the hecklers’ actions.
Then it came to the open floor debate, in which audience participation is encouraged. “They took the first point from the guy who everyone there knew to be one of the hecklers, and started sarcastically making comments about treating women as equals.”
This was the final straw. “Not only did they not kick him out, not only did they ask us not to say anything, but then you ask the guy who you know is going to be rude to speak first.
“I stood up afterwards but the president was not going to take my point from the floor.”
Only after pressure from the members in the chamber was she allowed to speak. This apparent lack of pro-activism by those present irritated Parker-Brooks. “We have debates on sexism all the time; it’s frustrating that they’re so good at debating sexism on an intellectual level – but when it actually happens, they don’t do anything,” she said.
In front of the chamber, she openly directed her anger at the GUU hecklers: “I told them: there is a massive difference between being technically equal and actually being treated as an equal. The fact that you were yelling shame and booing is horrible.
“What you don’t realise is that I heard the other comments you made. I heard you every single time, saying, ‘shame, woman’ to each other. I know you didn’t yell it out in the debate because you know it’s incredibly offensive. If you thought it was acceptable you would have said it. Importantly, at a competition like this – when it was a woman who organised it and when an all-female team topped the scores – I suggest that your comments are not only incredibly harmful and derogatory, but they’re also incredibly misguided.”
Regarding the way that journalists have approached the event, she told The Tab: “When you’re reporting on women standing up for themselves, why have you gone from ‘on verge of tears’ to ‘crying’? That never happened. You couldn’t see it on their faces. It was remarkable how they delivered brilliant speeches despite all the heckling.”
The Cambridge Union has taken the serious action of demanding an apology and revoking reciprocal membership with the Glasgow University Union. Ben Kentish, the Union President, told the The Tab that the action was appropriate:
Parker-Brooks wants more meaningful action to be taken: “The best thing that was done was that we’ve created a survey for people in debating about sexism in debating. I’m glad that this is being taken seriously and people, particularly guys in debating, are taking it as an opportunity to do something. Liking a Facebook status is fine, that’s great, I’m really glad you’ve liked it, but that’s not what’s going to be what changes things. You have do to more.”