The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Lessons from misogyny: Sexism in university debating

Will Stobart, President-elect of Manchester Debating Union, comments on the sexism scandal at Glasgow University Union


It’s a rare occasion when student debating, a large society within our own union, garners the attention of the national media. Outside of the few times when debating unions decide to invite particularly controversial or prominent guests to speak in public debates, university debating doesn’t spend much time in the limelight.

Those in charge of national competitions and setting debates are broadly liberal and fair-minded people, many of the topics are set with the specific aim of making sure that nobody accidentally offends anyone, and people are constantly reminded to be nice to each other, even within a competitive context.

But this week, debate has been all over the national press, following a competition at Glasgow University Union (GUU). The Mail and Telegraph characterised the incident as two female debaters who couldn’t deal with heckling from the floor (which is a standard practice at the GUU).

This could not be further from the truth. Both of the women in question are some of the hardest and most strong-minded people I know, they know how to deal with a bit of heckling, and have done so in the past. What was upsetting were the cries of ‘Shame, woman’, the demeaning language used towards the competitors for being female, and the response from other GUU members when complaints were made, telling the Chief Adjudicator team (the talented debaters who set debate motions at competitions) to ‘leave it alone’ and ‘that’s just how they are’. Since debating is past-time which places great emphasis on being open-minded and tolerant, such an attitude has caused a great deal of introspection on the part of many.

There is no lack of excellent female debaters in Britain or internationally. Female speakers have been amongst the very best at the World University Debating Championship this year, while all-female teams have excelled at Glasgow and Edinburgh. All female teams have recently won competitions in Manchester, Nottingham, Warwick and York. At both the World and European Championships, the top speakers were women. More frequently we’re seeing majority female judging panels, with well-respected judges on them. And the teams who run both the Oxford and Cambridge competitions were entirely made up of hard-working women.

And yet, while there has been a lot of movement at the top of the circuit, it must be kept in mind that the ample representation of women is not reflected in the rest of the circuit. There are a lot of great women speakers who, it might be argued, act as role models, yet there are a great many individual debates at competitions which are still 100% male. A similar phenomenon is observable in our debating union in Manchester, where there are a lot of male members, but it is the female ones who make up the majority of the Executive of our committee, who take on the most onerous tasks, and who rise to the top. It is good to have parity at the top, but it is the inequality further down the scale which causes the problem we observed in Glasgow: that many male debaters still live in a male debater’s world.

Why is this important? It is important because very similar phenomena arguably occur in every other profession or walk of life where female rolemodels exist, but the effect doesn’t trickle down to the grass-roots of the movement. I was active in politics for many years, where the imposition of female quotas by the top of the party often caused a lot of resentment amongst the mainly male grassroots. It is arguable that such resentment does little to foster a tolerant attitude towards gender equality. Instead of relying on quotas for women in the boardroom, in parliament, or the Students’ Union, we might contemplate that rolemodels cannot be effective without the liberal consent of the society which carries the quotas.

What the events of last weekend showed was that there’s still a very long way to go until any gender equality is realistic. If relatively liberal student societies can contain people who are sexist and misogynist, or people who are apologists for these people, then wider society doesn’t really bear thinking about. There has been a lot of soul searching on the debating circuit in response to the events, and a lot of new policies, including the institution of a women’s officer, have been proposed.

Hopefully, the long-term impact of the event will be that everyone acts in a more vigilant manner towards potentially offensive comments, and that we lose the complacent attitude that comes with having some women represented at the top. In the meanwhile, I will stand against Manchester Debating Union sending any members to events or competitions of the GUU until they have provided sufficient proof that the issue has been addressed.