Are girls allowed?

Last week, after a long day at work, I sat down on the couch with my son to enjoy what every father looks forward to: Cartoons. As time passed, and dinner time was upon us, I got up to prepare dinner (which due to fatigue was going to be whatever I could cook in 15 minutes or less). Upon my leaving the living room, my four-year-old son followed me into the kitchen and made the following statement: “No daddy, cooking is for girls.” Of course this was quite disturbing on multiple levels: where would a four-year-old come up with such an assertion? 

After a conversation with him, or at least the best conversation I knew how to have with a four-year-old, I begin to reflect on how we have all been socialized — his remark, as repulsive as it was, is only a microcosm of a much bigger problem.

In our society today, there is a noticeable gap between women and men at the top of virtually every food chain. Right now women make up only 20 percent of U.S. Congress, although they are 50 percent of the population being represented. Currently, only 24 of the Fortune 500 Companies are headed by females, although women make up about 45% of the labor force. And according to CNN, only 14% of the top five leadership positions at these companies are held by women. This is not only unbelievable, but unacceptable.

This conundrum is a multifaceted one and one that requires myriad solutions aimed at changing perceptions and providing opportunities. But the most immediate and viable approaches are those that focus on creating pipelines for women, allowing them opportunities to overcome the historical roadblocks that exists. To find an appropriate example, one must look no further than the world of policy debate.

Very few middle- and high-school activities lend themselves to the acquisition of executive level skills quite like debate. If you were to assess the 21st century skills that all executives need, one could reasonable argue that all of them can be developed and refined through the exercise of policy debate. With a heavy emphasis on critical thinking, researching, and communicating, debaters, often unknowingly, are equipping themselves with the requisite skills for corporate success or future career paths as community leaders and public officials.

But this too is not without problem. Debate historically has been a male-dominated exercise, which raises the question of how do we get more women involved in debate and other activities that create pipelines from middle schools to corporate board rooms. There is no simple answer to this, but through intentional programming, it can be done. Dallas Urban Debate’s last data analysis revealed that of its debaters last year, roughly 52% were female, while 48% were male. While this is a small sample size and not necessarily representative of what occurs across the board, it does suggest that through intentional programming, equality of opportunity can be achieved.

After my unfortunate episode with my son, I reached out to some women that I respect to find out what steps entities like DUDA can take to encourage more women to participate in debate, as well as other activities that help build strong pipelines, while reversing the ubiquitous presence of male privilege. Below is a snapshot of some the feedback they gave:
• Make an intentional effort to recruit more female coaches, judges, and role models
• Focus more heavily on the teamwork and collaboration aspects of debate and similar activities
• Encourage girls to pursue leadership roles as early as elementary and middle school
• Promote cross-gender teams to demonstrate equality and inclusion

Of course this is not intended to be a holistic list of actions that can be taken to ensure that women are provided equal opportunities at leadership and skill building activities. But it does hopefully continue the much needed dialogue around equality, fairness, and access to opportunity. And then we can perhaps answer the title of this blog, with not only a resounding yes, but with a systematic approach about ensuring it comes to fruition.

Adam Powell

Executive Director, Dallas Urban Debate Alliance

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