Monday, March 28, 2011

Women's participation in debating

There was a discussion on a friend's facebook account about women's participation in debating. I posted a comment there, but thought I'd copy it over here as well for anyone that's interested.

My thoughts are that there isn't much bias at play against women, just a major problem of retention. Kylie Lane, Beth O'Connor, Jess Prince and Naomi Oreb have all topped the tab at worlds since 2005. In our region (the North East) women have regularly done well too. Just from our Vermont team, Jess & John have won three tournaments this year, Sarah & Sam broke at Worlds and won a tournament, and Alli & Tom got to the Yale final. We don't seem to have as much of a problem retaining female debaters, and, as it happens, nor have UCD (my Alma Mater) lately. While not much research has been done on bias, Steven Kryger did write an interesting article for the Monash debating review in 2009 which indicated that there is no appreciable gender effect on results amongst experienced judges.

My gut feeling (and it's just that) is that people, as a whole, find it a little easier to get along with others of the same gender as them. The more women participate in a squad or on the circuit, the more people that others get to interact with, and form friendships with. The first year or two for any debater, no matter how good, is a tough slog where it's incredibly hard to reach knock-out rounds. What keeps people coming back is as much the friendships as it is the competition.

Why is it was a problem that women don't stay involved? At a simplistic level, I'd say it's extremely bad for teams competitively to lose 1/3rd of their (potentially) best speakers because they don't stay on after first or second year. For the circuit its bad because we get less diversity of views and opinions and have poorer debates as a result. (don't get me wrong, there are many other reasons to view it as a positive outcome, but these two, I would imagine, ought to appeal to all but the most insecure male speakers!)

So how to go about encouraging retention? Some things that have been implemented on other circuits range from a mixed-doubles competition (fun and ensuring 50/50 divide) in the UK, women's tournaments there, in Canada and Australia, and quotas for teams at major tournaments in Australia. Perhaps it's time to have a discussion about implementing similar measures in the North East. In the meantime, extra coaching and encouragement is always a good way to keep people coming back.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

How history shapes people

We know that our history shapes our lives to some extent. What a new field of economics is finding is to just how large an extent that is.

Tim Harford
author of the excellent Undercover Economist wrote earlier on this year about the phenomenon:

The largest silver mines in the Spanish empire were the Potosí mines, discovered in 1545 in what is now Bolivia. Exploiting the mines was dangerous, and in the late 16th century, the Spanish introduced the mita system of forced labour. Villages near Potosí were obliged to provide one-seventh of their adult male population to work the mines, and the mita system continued until its abolition in 1812.

That is history. This is not: the former mita districts are 25 per cent poorer than apparently identical districts on the other side of a boundary that ceased to mean anything 198 years ago. A long-abolished colonial system has somehow shaped the modern world.

While the field is a relatively new one, it has profound implications for public policy. Circumstances determine much of people's lives, even where those circumstances linger in the mists of collective memory. Policies such as those being implemented in Brazil to create conditional cash transfers are perhaps one way of addressing these inherited inequalities, but more ways must be found. It is considered a classic example of injustice that a child ought not inherit the sins of their parent (or their parent's owner); we ought do more to make that a reality.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Cape Town Harbour

I thought it was about time I got this blog going again. I've got a few posts half-written in the drafts that I'll post in the next few days. In the meantime here's a picture from my recent trip to the beautiful Cape Town in South Africa