The Oxford Union’s Debate Selection Committee (DSC) has sparked controversy by planning to introduce a women’s quota for the Oxford debating team going to the European University Debating Championships.
The policy has been widely disputed within the debating community, with complaints being voiced about the way it was announced in an email. Some claimed that the Debate Selection Committee did not make enough of an effort to bring the issue to the attention of the wider debating community, nor sufficiently open up the topic for discussion.
The Debate Selection Committee is one of the several committees of the Union and is in charge of choosing debaters to represent the Union at external competitions.
Union debater Rex Betan told Cherwell, “As a general proposition I’m in favour of gender quotas. However, I recognise that this issue can be divisive and as a man I feel it is not my place to vote on such issues.
“I agree that having the vote buried within an email was undesirable, but I doubt it was intentional from the Debate Selection Committee. At least they are trying things and gender issues are on the agenda.”
Natasha Rachman, a world championship finalist and one of the Union’s foremost debaters, opposed the introduction of the quota. “Oxford has a comparatively strong history on the UK universities circuit of promoting and supporting female debaters, and is making excellent efforts to improve outreach.
“However, I think that implementing women’s quotas would be a step in the wrong direction. The initial move by the Debate Selection Committee to pass a women’s quota was, I feel, under-advertised, given that this would be a significant and contentious decision. However, following complaints, this was admirably swiftly rectified and I look forward to a productive and open consultation on the issue.”
In reply to indignation caused by the quota, Jamie Jackson, Chair of the DSC at the Union, sent an email to the Oxford debaters mailing list, saying, “It has come to my attention that, although it was mentioned on the email, some consider the issue of discussion about a women’s quota for the European University Debating Championship squad in the future more important than its placement suggested. I realise this is a significant move, and one that some of you will want to have a say on.”
He continued that he would “like to make it clear that anyone is welcome to find out more about the proposed move and share their thoughts” at a DSC meeting in 3rd Week.
Ben Allen, Union debater and St Benet’s third year, commented, “Though I recognise and agree that we have a problem of underrepresentation of women in debating, I do not support the introduction of quotas for one of the most important and largest championships as the way to solve this problem.
“I am much more open to the notion of implementing quotas for women in novice tournaments, and for the training squad in the Union. Even so, I am usually sceptical of quotas given that those selected under them – regardless of merit – may be viewed as tokens, and objects of blame should we underperform at competitions.
“Also – I would point out as well that on the Union noticeboard, the DSC meeting minutes are nowhere to be found (at least when I checked last night).”
This follows a similar motion in 2009, when the Union voted down a move to impose a quota of at least one woman on the DSC after some female debaters labelled the motion “insulting”.
Jackson told Cherwell, “I should stress firstly that this quota is still very much in the discussion phase – Debate Selection Committee has opened a consultation process in order to hear the views of all Oxford debaters on the matter. This means that the size and terms of the quota, alongside its existence, are yet to be determined.
“Ensuring equal participation and success for women in debating is a problem faced by every debating society around the world. Oxford, whilst a long way from ideal, is actually in a relatively good place at the moment comparatively (three of our eight debaters at the Worlds Championship were women).
“We want to ensure, however, that future squads continue this trend and that there is always an incentive for proactive measures to be taken to find and train up excellent female freshers. Unless you believe that women are intrinsically worse at debating, this should pose no threat to Oxford’s competitiveness at the most prestigious tournaments.”