How can we improve judging for women?

Datum: Apr 12th, 2017
Category: International, Jurieren, Mittwochs-Feature

In this week’s feature, Helena Hecke investigates the issue of women not being taken serious in adjudication discussions, along with some suggestions to fix it.


The importance of equality and diversity are two of the ideals that nearly everyone in the debating community agrees upon. We value diverse perspectives and try to encourage them, as different perspectives will lead to more interesting debates and, when it comes to judging, to a better call and explanation. So how is it possible that female debaters still have to experience being disrespected and ignored by fellow judges on judging panels at countless tournaments all over the globe? In order to write this article, I had conversations with different women from circuits all around the world including, but not limited to, Continental Europe, IONA, North America and Australia. They’ve shared their experiences, as well as suggested what could be done to tackle the problem and make judging fairer and more enjoyable for women.



So what is this problem I am talking about? The first time I personally really felt like the treatment I received had nothing to do with lacking judging skills, but in fact my gender, was when I was judging a room in which the speakers did not only deliver offensive arguments about women, and one of the male judges told me the arguments ‘weren’t offensive at all’ and that I was ‘just wrong’. My first thought was that it was just this one person, who was a bit rude, but in one of the next rounds at the same tournament it turned out to be even worse, when a male wing judge was constantly interrupting me and talking over me – a thing he didn’t do with the other judges on the panel, who were all male, including the trainee. The chair wasn’t any help either and just let the wing judge proceed, ignoring my efforts to finish my sentences.

Obviously I didn’t want to believe that my judging skills were in doubt because I was a woman on a majority male panel, I wanted to believe that these were just isolated instances in which individuals have behaved terribly. So I started asking around to see if anyone else had had similar experiences at competitions as a judge, and it turned out that many female debaters had these experiences constantly, regardless of their level of skill, experience or prestige; From newcomers, to CAs, even up to Chair judges of Worlds Open Finals.

An adjudication panel during a debate - © Tilbury House

An adjudication panel during a debate – © Tilbury House

Some experiences included a judge at Dutch Worlds on a motion that just happened to be about women, in which she was a wing, and the chair and the other wing (both men) were just talking to each other, so she started timing to see how long it would be until they even looked at her. It took 6:48. Similarly a woman, who has been CA at several competitions and broken at numerous more, was winging a panel where she didn’t know anyone and ended up disagreeing with another wing, who seemed to think her explanation and call were complete nonsense, although it was him who was wrong in the situation. She spent the entire discussion being spoken over and trying not to scream from frustration because she knew it shouldn’t be happening but she felt she couldn’t stop it without coming across as ‘aggressive’. These experiences did not only occur at Dutch worlds and not only to wing judges.

Being talked over by male judges, especially inexperienced ones, does not end when one starts to chair in-rounds and out-rounds, but continuously happens even to female adj-core members at the tournament they’re CAing, as several women have complained to me about. One story in particular by an English debater was at a competition she DCAed. A man well known on the circuit was winging with her, it had been a contentious decision and he split from her and the other wing. As soon as she began giving the call and feedback, he started interrupting her to provide his own insights.

Something that is experienced by so many different women at different tournaments all over the world can not be ignored or palmed off as single, personal instances, especially when even highly reputable and very experienced female judges still experience such behaviour, even though they have proven over years at countless tournaments that they’re outstanding judges. Neither me, nor the women I talked to, claimed that all men are doing this. More importantly, many of the men who actually do take part in this behaviour don’t do so with evil intentions, or even fully consciously. These instances continuously happen, in particular because many men think they’d never engage in mistreating female panellists, and people won’t change their behaviour if they believe that a problem doesn’t exist, as they haven’t experienced or noticed it themselves.


Solving the problem at hand

Therefore the obvious question is: How can we, as the debating community, solve this issue?

In these situations, I was unsure how to react, as it can be quite intimidating to speak up, when the chair is either the one exhibiting problematic behaviour or doesn’t notice that something is wrong, especially when I’m not 100% confident with my decision and judging myself. Being in such a situation has, for myself and several other women, lead to questioning our judging skills, which obviously makes it even harder to point out a problem, as we think the problem lies with ourselves. Several debaters have suggested useful things that could be done as a wing when one finds herself in such a situation.

One recommendation was: For example, if you spot it happening, it can be useful to call it out in a fairly friendly manner – half the time, the chair just isn’t very good at chairing, and hasn’t noticed. For example, saying something like “I’m sorry, I’m a bit new to this, and when I get interrupted, I find it hard to keep my train of thought. Could I finish explaining this first?” isn’t ideal in the sense that it’s you taking on blame for something that is totally not your fault, but it’s also non-confrontational, and if the chair isn’t actively terrible, should be enough of a reminder to them to start actually managing the discussion. This might not be the most satisfying thing to do, but could be especially useful, when someone is scared to offend the chair, like I tend to be.

An equally friendly and non confrontational option would be to frame the issue as unintended, which has helped some people to avoid being perceived as confrontational; for example, saying “I know you didn’t mean to interrupt me there, but where I come from I’ve been taught not to speak on top of other people, so I’m struggling to finish my thoughts here – I’d really appreciate it if you’d let me finish.” Additionally, she recommended that especially when one feels too uncomfortable to speak up, the person should note that saying this once can often be a favour to other wings with the same issue (often you have That One Wing who speaks on top of several people), or to future judges on their panels.

Tobias Kube erklärt die Grundlagen des British Parliamentary Style auf dem Jurierseminar Karlsruhe-Nancy 2014 in Karlsruhe. (c) Johannes Grygier

Participants during an adjudication seminar – © Johannes Grygier

Pointing out an issue can lead to burst the bubble of unawareness of people, which is mainly effective for the people who don’t do it intentionally and will adapt their behaviour, as soon as they realize that a change has to be made. Just because someone is more experienced or has achieved more as a BP judge doesn’t mean they can’t have things to learn from the person in question, as was pointed out.

Slightly more straight forward ideas could be asking “Am I allowed to speak now?” (To the wing rather than the chair), which will shut people up and make them reflect a bit more if they aren’t douchebags but are acting out a learned behaviour or to resort to making eye contact, holding up a hand in the universal ‘stop’ sign and saying ‘I’m just going to finish my sentence before you start yours.’.

All of the suggestions have worked out for several female judges and it depends on the person themselves how much they dare to confront their fellow judges or their level of confidence in the situation.

When a person finds herself in a situation of being talked over or ignored, or in a situation where it is happening to someone on the panel, and they are chairing a round, they obviously have more influence, but at the same time they have more of an obligation to resolve problems during the adjudication.

A potential solution that has been pointed out by several debaters is to just be harsh and give brutally negative responses. This might not make you the most popular person at the tournament, but it’s definitely effective in the situation. When confronting a person on mistreating a person based on their gender, being nice should be the least of your concerns, as scary as it might seem, because the other person is in the wrong, not the person being ignored or the person who helps the victim in the situation.

A strategy applied to quickly shut down possibly negative situations is the chair being very explicit about time limits on contributions. Keeping the timer visible and saying ‘X could you give me two minutes on this clash and Y after that can you do two minutes on the opposite’. Doing this can make the chair more comfortable in cutting off wings who talked for too long about nothing, and works well for keeping the discussion organized and within time-limits, as well as preventing wings talking over each other or the chair. When they do, the chair can point out the other person’s time is not up and they’ll have ‘set amount of time’ in x seconds.

Another option, for chairs who do not like timers: The chair should use very directed questions, i.e. leading with an explanation of why they think the panel should focus on a particular issue next, and then gently policing that. Keeping a mental (or, for long discussions with large panels, sometimes physical) tracker of how many questions have been directed to each panellist, can be very helpful, as can stopping before each decision that’ll be locked in to check if any panellists feel they have something they haven’t been able to contribute yet that might be decisive, and/or asking questions like “[Panellist], you still don’t seem comfortable with this decision. What worries you about it?”.

Both male and female chairs need to control the discussion as well as they humanly can, because with the great honour of the position as chair comes the great responsibility to manage the discussion. In situations where a judge is being talked over and doesn’t dare to speak up themselves, especially when they fear backlash, a chair can and must help resolve the situation.

The most important thing everyone should do after the debate if they either get mistreated or see that somebody gets mistreated, as pointed out by numerous debaters, is write it down in feedback and let the CAs know. Here it is advisable to be as precise as possible. For example, ‘The chair asked me to explain X comparative but wing Y talked over me and didn’t let me contribute’. General statements about not being listened to by other judges might not be taken as seriously, but precise descriptions are more difficult to be ignored or disregarded.  One debater shared that she once had a male chair shout at her in deliberation for asking a question. He then refused to let her explain why she had asked it and basically told her she didn’t know how to judge. She told the CA team, but he got to chair the final. So unfortunately it’s not always going to work out and there are some CA teams that are not looking out for it, but the good ones are, and will act accordingly. Being a good CA also needs skills which go beyond being an experienced, successful debater and being good at judging and setting motions: They need to take into account what happens on judging panels. But they can only do that when they realize that something happening is wrong and needs to be solved, if feedback is given. The CA team might not always help, but the more feedback is given, the likelier it is for them to spot an issue, and more importantly do their best to solve it.


Solving the bigger problem

Although finding a way out of the situation is obviously important, it is also just a Band-Aid on the bigger problem: The fact that female judges are continuously talked over by male judges. Solving the issue on a bigger scale will take more time and will be more difficult. Ideas on what to do are especially centred on training judges to deal with these situations.

The first thing most societies teach their novices is to speak, but not to judge. So one way of solving this problem is to point out on from the beginning that there is a problem, and then teach the novices to be conscious about not being douchey and to teach them how they can help their fellow judges. Another thing that could be done, as suggested by several debaters, is to dedicate a section in judge briefings about chairing skills. Because, as pointed out, chairing is a very difficult skill that is completely different to judging – and there are plenty of very good judges who just don’t have this skill.

In this section things that should be addressed could include (but are not limited to):

> Chair responsibilities

> making sure everyone on the panel gets a chance to justify their view, specifically mentioning avoiding unnecessary interruptions

> being mindful of the gendered dynamic of panel discussions

As said above: The chair has a level of power in the discussion. Teaching the chairs how to detect and handle such a problematic situation can lead to less instances happening, but also to less women being scared to speak up for fear of consequences from the chair.


The author: Helena Hecke - © Heart of Europe

The author: Helena Hecke – © Heart of Europe

Other problems faced

Changing the issue is not easy, as the problem exists for many reasons, and very often it is not done deliberately, rather subconsciously. So pointing out that this issue exists and needs addressing, whether it is during the discussion or in judges briefings beforehand, can do a lot to make people more conscious about the problem, so they’re less likely to do it subconsciously. Further problems include that it’s much, much more normal to have single-person panels at small/regional tournaments, and that half of the debating world uses a format that doesn’t involve panel deliberations anyway for half the year (namely Australs). So it’s not something that it’s that easy to get practice doing, for a lot of people. Additionally, on a more individual level, it’s tricky sometimes for chairs when there is a larger panel and the call isn’t clear, as you need to navigate the discussion while keeping in mind both the call and the dynamics of the conversation. All these issues can be helped through training of chairs and judges. Spending a small period of time in the judges briefing or in the societies themselves can do wonders to help solve the issue.

Regardless of all the difficulties the debating community might have to overcome, we should definitely take the time to consider the issue (even if one hasn’t experienced it themselves) and think about what one could do, either in their own behaviour whilst judging, or when organizing or CAing a tournament. If many people rethink their behaviour and are more conscientious in how they treat their fellow panellists, a lot of progress can be made.




Helena Hecke is part of Tilbury House Debating Society since 2015 and has been involved in schools debating beforehand. She studies Law at the University of Cologne.

Mittwochs-Feature: Every Wednesday at 10.00 a.m. the Mittwochs-Feature features an idea, interview or book regarding debate – usually in German, sometimes in English, sometimes both. If you would like to start a debate please mail us your idea to team@ .

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1 Kommentare zu “How can we improve judging for women?”

  1. Jonathan Scholbach says:

    One way towards a solution of the general problem might be found in filming the adjudication discussion – as we did with the final round adjudication of Jena’s Adventsdebatte 2016 ( That way we get more examples of well-managed discussions and of bad ones. And I believe this might be a strong instrument for both learning to chair an adjudication properly and in reflecting about oneself’s behaviour (as a wing).

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