Not Up for Debate: Why Sexism Made Me Quit the Debate Team

by Nila Venkat
Also Featured on KQED
10.20.16
Photo credit: Jenny Bolario
10.20.16
Photo credit: Jenny Bolario

Photo credit: Jenny Bolario

“Penguins,” I told my mother, while driving to my first debate competition. “They all look like penguins.” I was referring to the waves of high school students in suits and skirts, unloading from minivans and filing into the gymnasium.

Like mini senators, the young debaters strutted through the parking lot, shuffling through papers and doing vocal exercises. Most were guys. I didn’t think too much of it then, but that gender dynamic would end up being one of the reasons I quit debate.

The blatant stares from guys checking me out as I walked between rounds had me hiking down my skirt and clutching my notebooks to my chest. As I nervously reviewed points with my partner, two guys from an opposing team laughed and said “take it easy baby,” which left me stuttering at a loss for words.

I once complained to a girl on my debate team about how I had four phone numbers slipped to me before the end of my third round, and she shook her head and scoffed. “That’s what happens when you take a bunch of high school nerds and put them together with just a few girls — they think they own us.”

After one particularly rough tournament, I angrily threw my bags into my mom’s car and complained to her about the guys I had to deal with. I was looking for sympathy, but instead to my surprise she told me to get used it.

As a woman working in tech, she’s had to deal with the same kind of misogyny. Belittling comments. Men taking credit for her work. And sexist assumptions.

That’s why when I told her I wanted to drop debate junior year, she tried to convince me to stay. Not to improve my public speaking skills, but because the sexism I’d face there would prepare me for the rest of my life as a woman.

Even though I agree with my mom, I decided to quit debate to get away from that sexist atmosphere — at least, for a little while.

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