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.