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Imposter Syndrome: The Displacement of Women in Debate

By Fiona Hu


Sitting in the cold auditorium, my legs steadily shook up and down, waiting for my speech and debate director to announce leadership and awards. “And the Natalie Cho Dedication to Debate Award goes to… Fiona Hu.” Instant shock and joy lit my face as I walked up on that stage to collect that award. I walked away later with a plaque and overall team captain. Yet, I also carried something else: indifference and a sense I didn’t belong.

This sensation of indifference and not belonging is called imposter syndrome, with the National Library of Medicine defining it as a “behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.” Unfortunately, women face this syndrome the most, as the Los Angeles Business Journal reports that 75% of executive women report experiencing imposter syndrome during their careers. Women in debate feel this phenomenon, too, with many women, including me, feeling lucky to be in their leadership roles rather than deserving to be in the position they are in.

On my team, the men get celebrated more than the women. Frequently, achievements from my debate partner and I get overshadowed by the accomplishments of men on the team, especially if these achievements happen at the same tournament. Instances like when a male teammate told two other male teammates that if they went to a tournament, my debate partner and I wouldn’t have done as well shaped the mindset on the team that no matter what, the women are below the men – even if they perform the same if not better. Subsequently, these comments shaped my career: what if I wasn’t that good and I just won because my male teammates weren’t there? If you think this might be a team culture issue, it’s not. My team is not the only victim of this situation, with the circuit idolizing male debaters while ignoring the achievements of women. After all, K.A.L.W. reports that nearly 70% of P.F. debaters who make it on the national circuit are male. This undermining and overshadowing of celebration tell women that their achievements don’t matter, creating self-doubt within women.

Comments on ballots don’t help either: “You are too passionate.” “Stop being aggressive.” “Your pitch is too high.” These phrases are told disproportionately to women, often implying they are hysterical and cannot compare to their male counterparts. The reason? Judges still prefer male voices. According to the American Scientist, men with lower-pitched voices tend to be perceived as more dominant, respected, and commanding. When we already have intrinsic biases in our public speaking world, we already push women, who have naturally higher-pitched voices, out. These preferences add to the insecurity women feel, explicitly telling them they need to conform to masculine traits to win rounds. The American Scientist corroborates that women with lower-pitched voices are perceived as more dominant. With masculinity favored over femininity, some women perceive a win as luck rather than skill. I have felt this over many rounds with men. Yet, I am also impacted by the perspectives of other people calling our wins “lucky.” Thus, it’s not just our internal expectations that impact our sense of belonging but also our external societal expectations. Our biases and views on traditional roles get applied to debate, shaping what we perceive a woman’s public speaking should look like and impacting the wins and losses of women.

These are not the only insecurities that pile onto women in debate and are not the only reasons why imposter syndrome forms. Other debaters are not women who feel imposter syndrome. Yet, as a community, we must reflect on how our perception of women impacts their feelings of belonging and self-worth. Thus, I propose we take debate in a new light:

  1. Let’s start celebrating female debaters. We should treat female debaters with the respect they deserve and congratulate women more for their awards (no matter how small). Women leave when they feel underappreciated, and celebrating little successes allows for more inclusion of women.

  2. Start propping up more girl-girl teams. There was only one outround at Glenbrooks where a girl-girl team debated another girl-girl team. We must encourage more girls to compete and give them resources to break the male-dominated space.

  3. Create mandatory judge training. Let’s be so real right now. The little blurb on the top of ballots won’t do much on diversity training. Instead, we need judges to attend diversity training led by women, people of color, LGBTQ+, etc., to break down inherent biases. Use this training to direct ballots productively and avoid sexist language.

We can change the community for the better and reshape our perceptions of women in debate. And maybe the next girl to receive her awards and leadership at her debate banquet will feel accepted and deserving of her accomplishments.


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