All-female speech and debate officer team works to foster inclusivity

October 17, 2021 — by Nidhi Mathihalli and Kavya Patel
Students in the past reported a competitive and intimidating debate culture when participating in the male-dominated team, which has shifted with the switch to a female-run team.

Senior speech and debate president Harshini Velchamy walked into English teacher Erick Rector’s room in early September for the first practice of the year. As she scanned the room, she saw some familiar faces, a few completely new ones and many she vaguely recalled from the year on Zoom.

Velchamy is one of four officers for the speech and debate team this year; other officers include senior vice president Selina Chen, junior treasurer Shreya Rallabandi and senior secretary Anouk Yeh. The team also has two captains: junior debate captain Anushka Sankaran and senior Limited Prep captain Shivali Kattumadam. The team’s debate coach is Steve Clemmons, who has been helping coach the school’s debate team since 2009. He is also serving as the adult liaison for entering tournaments and other logistics. The program has a new speech coach, Kiana Young, who began on Oct. 1.

Rector, who stepped aside from coaching and advising the team this year, said the officers are all females for the first time in eight years. This year, the debate team is about 20 percent female compared to 60 percent female in speech. Traditionally, the team has more often been led by male officers and captains but is becoming more inclusive with the male proportion of the officer team changing from 100 percent in 2018 to 83 percent in 2019 and to 50 percent in 2020.

“The team has always been very male dominated, which definitely made the energy a bit more competitive and intimidating,” Velchamy said. “We’re a lot more focused on bettering the team than self-betterment. It’s a huge difference from two years ago.”

Chen, who competed in both speech and public forum debate in her freshman year, said she and her partner were the only two girls on a team of over 20 people; this made it difficult to find role models. Chen said one of the captains at the time even gave her and her partner sexist feedback regarding a mock debate they had just finished.

 “He said we are lucky to be a pair of female debaters, so we should be as aggressive as we could because judges are less likely to penalize female debaters for being aggressive,” Chen said. “The way he said that made me feel like, even though he’s in the majority, the minority has the advantage.” 

Chen also said she encountered instances that year in which male debaters were condescending and patronizing toward her at a tournament and subsequently ignored her and her partner after they achieved better results. This uncomfortable atmosphere contributed to her decision to drop debate sophomore year and solely compete in speech.

Freshman Timothy Leung is one of the few new male students doing speech. Leung has competed at the national level and has been doing speech and debate since middle school.

“Personally, I don’t feel pressured to debate, but I definitely can see why other people would,” Leung said. “Speech seems a lot like acting, which is something that guys wouldn’t usually be expected to do. I know guys who want to do speech, but are inclined to do debate; there’s definitely a stigma surrounding speech and its female dominance.”

This year, the team officers are learning from mistakes made by previous officers by focusing on being more open and friendly with the underclassmen as they prepare for competitions that will be online for the first semester.

Sankaran, who has participated in debate since freshman year, saw the effects of a male-dominated team, which caused her to be somewhat intimidated by those officers. This year, however, she said that the freshmen seem more comfortable asking for help from the officers. 

“It’s really easy for me to ask the officers any questions that I have this year,” freshman Aneri Shah said. “They are really inviting and aren’t judgemental or dominating, which makes me more comfortable around them.”

Although the team is still slightly struggling to regain students who dropped out last year during online practices, the officers believe that the work and effort put into this year’s speech and debate team as well as the all-female officer team has had a positive impact on the team.

According to Sankaran, the inclusive environment has also empowered many people on the speech and debate team to pursue what they are passionate about rather than choose the event that most of their peers do.

The team is noticing a spike in interest among underclassmen, and the officers are being more open with these younger members. “I’m definitely happy about the increased female presence in officer positions,” Velchamy said. “It’s empowering because seeing ourselves in the positions that we have really validates the amount of effort and energy we’ve put into the team. Specifically, the effort we’ve put in to do well despite it being harder for females to be respected in the speech and debate community is starting to pay off.”

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