Sexism in Scholastic Speech Competitions
This article was originally published in The MAS Liberty, one of the Junior State of America’s student-run publications.
In professional environments, it is generally accepted that women have more barriers to making an effective presentation than men do; this is particularly true of presentations made to predominantly male audiences. An authoritative man is strong and confident, whereas an authoritative woman is rude and abrasive. While many political movements have fought hard to change these harmful perceptions, a sign their efforts may not be enough can be seen in scholastic speech competitions. I had the opportunity to interview one female, pseudonymously known as “Kate,” who participates in one of the most popular forms of scholastic speech competition: mock trial.
In pursuit of her passion for law and learning, when she found out about a mock trial team at her school, she jumped at the opportunity. Seeing potential in the rookie mock trialer, her team gave her one of only four attorney positions. In a multi-day competition that year, Kate and her team beat almost all of the most competitive and well-funded schools in her state. When approached about her experiences with mock trial judges, she enthusiastically agreed to a FaceTime interview to share her story in hopes that it would help current and future judges gain a better insight in their duty towards cultivating young female leaders. Furthermore, her experiences serve as a red flag that these problems will continue to plague the next generation of female business leaders, attorneys, and advocates if no action is taken.
One of the causes of the negative perceptions of women business leaders, attorneys, and advocates is the gendered perceptions of them as nurturers and domestics. Women are groomed to be in traditional roles that adhere to these ideas, like teachers, nurses, and house cleaners.
Women who attempt to diverge from this culturally ingrained preconception of what a woman “should be” are met with obstacles that men are exempt from; women are homemakers, not leaders. “I don’t wear a tie or have a short haircut,” Kate says, “so, from the jump, I’m at a disadvantage because I do not fulfill their culturally ingrained image of what a lawyer looks like.”
At many of her competitions, Kate would be wearing a black women’s suit but was paranoid the whole time knowing that her appearance — and only her appearance — was being scrutinized. No men’s clothing is checked, but women, from the length of their skirt to their makeup, are viciously critiqued. Whereas the singular focus on men is their performance, women’s assessments are muddied by insubstantial criticisms leveled against their appearance, makeup, and weight. “All the boys have to worry about is their arguments and rebuttals; girls have to worry about everything: arguments, rebuttals, hair, how we sit, smeared mascara… it’s endless pressure.”
These assessments are superficial and serve only to distract from women’s competence as orators. Men are programmed by society to seek out attractive women as their mates and caregivers of their offspring. When a woman does not fit a man’s image of attractiveness or acts assertively (contrary to a man’s image of a nurturer), she forms a negative impression on the man. One of the biggest hurdles in combating this, therefore, is that these negative assessments of women are often done unconsciously.
Furthermore, some teams even subconsciously cast their female team members in jobs traditionally stereotyped as female jobs. “While I am thankful to have been on a team that did not have these ideas, many teams, usually because of their older coaches, seem to be much more easily convinced to cast females in,” for example, “secretarial or paralegal roles since real secretaries have been predominantly female.” The same logic follows when deciding who should be a witness and who should be an attorney on a mock trial team. Coaches are more ready to pass up females for leading roles and, instead, give them supportive roles, such as the enamoring witness, to assist their “superior” male counterparts.
Culturally ingrained attitudes also lead to a labelling of women using negative language. This is damaging because language mirrors, and ultimately dictates, thought. Whereas a man’s interrogation of a defendant can be seen as unwavering and assertive, a women’s similar interrogation can be seen as relentless and combative. “Comments like ‘I’m sure you’re a nice girl but I thought your questions made you seem too b*****,’ ‘you were way too aggressive,’ are the norm for female mock trial attorneys,” Kate explains. Her male co-counsels, on the other hand (often having material prepared by the same group of students), have received praise that they took command of the well and didn’t let their witness off easily.
As a result, when a judge looks over his notes from a long trial assessing the performance of the student attorneys, his notes on the male attorney will consist of words with a positive connotation (assertive, commanding), whereas his notes on the female attorney will have a negative connotation (combative, aggressive). These connotations ultimately color the judge’s impression of the female competitors’ performance more negatively than the male competitors’ performance. The male will of course win. In one competition that was only 36% male competitors, males won 60% of the individual attorney awards.
The success of males over females does not go unnoticed by teammates and coaches. “I feel like I need to be twice as good as my male teammates to get half as many opportunities to compete,” Kate complains. This is because scholastic speech teams will naturally bend to the will of judges who prefer “assertive” males over “ill-mannered” females, persuading teams to cast out females subsequently perpetuating sexual stereotypes and reinforcing the glass ceiling.
And these attitudes are no doubt a result of a trickle down effect from real trials, where grown female attorneys likely face similar challenges. For the few that are able to overcome these biases, a dangerous irony exists: The very women that female students depend on to put cracks in the glass ceiling often unconsciously fortify it. Female judges, few as they are, are similarly gendered and thus often penalize their own sex despite having likely dealt with the same stigmas faced by girls today. “This piling on silences young girls, like myself, from even trying to point out these inequities in the judging,” Kate says. Unfortunately, progress rarely occurs in silence. These female judges present themselves, and are presented to female students, as successful female leaders whom female students should admire and model. “I admire them for being successful, despite sexual stereotypes, but am not so sure their advancement of sexual stereotypes is behavior I aspire to model,” Kate says.
Women are hitting their heads against the glass ceiling. For them to break through, gender bias needs to be able to be discussed, and it must start at the scholastic level, so that as the demographic of these judges shifts, so too do their attitudes. Kate also contends that progressive women must be given a chance at leadership positions and selected fairly and persistently.