Debating While Female: How Gender Affects Perceptions Pundits have said Hillary Clinton doesn't smile enough or is too emotional. These are familiar critiques, Anna Waters, a former high school debater-turned-coach, tells NPR's Ari Shapiro.

Debating While Female: How Gender Affects Perceptions

Debating While Female: How Gender Affects Perceptions

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Pundits have said Hillary Clinton doesn't smile enough or is too emotional. These are familiar critiques, Anna Waters, a former high school debater-turned-coach, tells NPR's Ari Shapiro.


Tonight's debate will mark the first time a woman takes the stage as her party's presidential nominee, the first presidential debate where gender is one of the major dynamics. Anna Waters has been thinking a lot about the perception of women in formal debates. She has been judged as a high school debater, and she's also served as a judge and coach.

She's now a journalism student at Northwestern University and recently wrote about sexism in high school debate for The Washington Post, and she's here in the studio. Welcome to the program.

ANNA WATERS: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Give us some examples that you've seen of young women being judged at a debate in ways that male debater would not.

WATERS: Well, a couple of different areas - one is with voice - some of the adjectives used to describe women's voices you don't really hear about men - so things like screechy or naggy or just in general annoying. The high-pitched tone of voice is often criticized. There are things about the way that women dress. Often whatever men wear to the debate round just doesn't really play a factor.

SHAPIRO: You've never seen a man criticized for wearing the wrong tie or the wrong suit.

WATERS: No, not really, and even when they're just, like, wearing khakis and kind of mailing it in, like, they never get criticism. But if a woman's skirt is too long or too short, if her heels are too high or she's just wearing flats, God forbid, those play factors when they obviously shouldn't.

SHAPIRO: How much of what you write about having experienced in high school debate both as a debater and now as a coach applies to a presidential stage, particularly when Hillary Clinton has been on debate stages for years, has been in the public spotlight for decades?

WATERS: Well, I was surprised by how similar it seemed because I think - I don't know. You would imagine it would be really different for a major presidential candidate who's been in the spotlight and just some high school kid. But I think a lot of the structural things don't really change.

Obviously she's had a lot more experience. She knows more what she's up against, and she knows what it's like to be on stages like that. But I think the things about tone, the way she'll be criticized, the way that she'll have to moderate her emotion - those are all things that I don't think really change.

SHAPIRO: And yet do women in debates also have an advantage on some level? I'm thinking of during the primaries. Donald Trump attacked all of his opponents, but when he attacked Carly Fiorina, he was really heavily criticized for that in a way that he was not when he went after his male opponents.

WATERS: Yeah, I think there are situations where it can be an advantage. Like, I know that when I'm judging, if I see male debaters being, like, incredibly aggressive towards a woman who you can tell is feeling attacked, maybe starting to cry. I've seen situations like that. And of course I'm sympathetic to the woman in the round.

But I think that overall it's in general more difficult for women just because they have to be thinking about so many things that men don't. Like, I know that when Clinton is up there, she'll be thinking about ways that she speaks in a way that Trump won't have to.

SHAPIRO: When you were a high school debater yourself, did you get feedback from judges that showed you you were being evaluated on different standards from your male competitors?

WATERS: Well, there were definitely times where you would notice comments over and over again that stopped making as much sense. But one thing that I noticed about myself is that when I debate, I - sometimes people made fun of me for it. But I kind of have a debate voice, where my voice goes down a couple of octaves.

And it's not like I walked into rounds like I know men are good debaters, so I'm going to try and sound like a boy. It was more just naturally - when I try to be persuasive, I sounded more masculine. I mean I can see now that is probably related to all of these gender stereotypes and all of these ways that persuasion is influenced by the gender of the person you're listening to.

SHAPIRO: And so is the takeaway for those of us watching the debate at home that we should grade Hillary Clinton on a curve or keep our innate, maybe subconscious reactions in check or watch out for these particular red flags?

WATERS: I think because I had experiences with sexism or just gender-related comments - when I judge rounds, I have that in the back of my head. And I know that changes the comments I write. Like, if I'm writing down that I think a woman was being too aggressive, I better not be writing on the other side that the man did a great job for being aggressive.

So I think it's more just, like, have it in your head. And if you have a thought that might be gendered, maybe think about it again and be sure that you're being equally fair to both candidates.

SHAPIRO: Anna Waters is a journalism student at Northwestern University, and she also coaches high school debate. Her piece in The Washington Post is called "How Could Sexism Hurt Clinton In The debates? These Female High School Debaters Know." Thanks a lot.

WATERS: Thank you.

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