The Most Persuasive Girls in the Room: A Peek Inside the World of High School Debating

While the international debate circuit is still dominated by young men, the girls of Canada's national team have never let that intimidate them.
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Sarah Sahagian
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While the international debate circuit is still dominated by young men, the girls of Canada's national team have never let that intimidate them.

It's nine o'clock on Saturday morning in an uptown Toronto boardroom. It's a sunny day in late June, the sort of day you associate with picnics and the park. Pop culture representations suggest all teens should still be sleeping in at this hour on a weekend; however, I'm with a group of young ladies who aren't just up, they're ready to argue about whether Barack Obama's foreign policy has done more harm than good.

These are the young women of Canada's National Debate Team, and they have descended upon the city of Toronto for intensive practices ahead of this summer's World Schools Debating Championship. The World Schools Debating Championship is to the international community of high school debaters what the World Cup is to soccer. Held in English, It's like the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but the answers aren't spelled out for the kids. No, in this extra-curricular, all the answers are – literally – debatable.

This year, Canada is one of the few countries that will show up at the championship with a team where girls are in the majority. They are also one of the teams to watch out for, as last year the Canadians made The Grand Finals, ultimately placing second overall at the tournament. The three accomplished young women on the team hail from different parts of the country but all share a profound love of the spoken word. These young women include the team's captain, Rory Flynn (18), a veteran who has already competed at the championship twice before, as well as Dasha Metropolitansky (15), and Naz Gocek (17). Together, they're like The Three Musketeers, only they have no need for swordplay, because these ladies can cut down an opponent with a single sentence.

Left to Right: Dasha Metropolitansky, Rory Flynn, and Naz Gocek

Left to Right: Dasha Metropolitansky, Rory Flynn, and Naz Gocek

Rory, Dasha and Naz all qualified to represent their country through a rigorous try-out process where the most accomplished debaters in the country come together, competing to prove they are the best of the best, the chosen few who have earned the right to debate for their nation on the world stage. For Naz, who immigrated to Canada from Turkey just five years ago, the opportunity to represent her adopted country is particularly exciting.

If you're new to formal debating, the format involves a resolution, and two teams ready to speak up and debate it in front of a panel of judges. There is a proposition team, who argue in favour of the resolution (also known as a motion), and an opposition team who, as you may have guessed, oppose it. These motions can involve anything, from territorial disputes in the South China Sea to whether children should be permitted to work in the entertainment industry. The debaters must use their critical thinking skills to argue for whichever side of the resolution they are assigned, regardless of whether they actually agree with it. Half of the resolutions at the World Schools Debating Championship are given out weeks in advance, while the other half are impromptu motions, which are announced only one hour prior to the debate itself. If all these intellectual gymnastics sound fascinating, you can watch a sample debate from last year's World Schools Debating Championship here (and below).

As an activity, debating has historically been male-dominated. In parts of Canada, certain high school debate leagues did not permit women members until the 1970s. Sexism, double standards, and inequality of opportunity, however, still rear their ugly heads on the debate scene from time to time. Year after year, the majority of debaters who place in the top ten at The World Schools Debating Championship are men. It's not just that the girls are less present at the most competitive levels, however. Rory admits female debaters can be called "shrill" or "bossy" just for being passionate about a debate.

Meanwhile, Dasha explains she is very aware of the "stylistic barriers" for women debaters. Says the teen, "If women or girls speak too loudly, people can see it as too aggressive. It's just normal for men." For her part, Naz describes how insulting it can be when someone underestimates her ability to debate things she describes as having been "socially constructed as 'manly' topics, like sports or war."

Rory suggests there is an "'unconscious bias,'" which leads many people to find men more persuasive. She posits, "The politicians we are used to hearing speak about topics like economics or international relations are mostly male, so we aren't used to hearing women discuss these issues." Indeed, countless men in public life — both living and dead — cut their teeth as high school debaters. Former debaters who made their way into public life include current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Senator Ted Cruz, President Richard Nixon, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and famous philosopher Michael Ignatieff. Looking at a list like that, it's understandable why debate is sometimes seen as a bit of an "old boys club."

While the international debate circuit is still dominated by men, the girls of Canada's national team have never let that intimidate them. Even though she has experienced challenges with gendered double standards, Rory recommends the activity to other teenage girls: "Debating is one of the best ways to allow young women to be confident about something that is not about the way they look, the way they dress, or their gender."

In addition to their sharp minds and hard work, another secret weapon the girls of Canada's national team have is an outstanding role model in the form of their coach, Aislin Flynn. An undergraduate student finishing a degree in film and bioethics at the University of Toronto, she herself is a former member of Canada's national team. Ms. Flynn began her coaching career immediately upon graduating from high school. Now, at age 22, Aislin is one of the youngest head coaches of any gender in Team Canada history. She is also the youngest woman ever to be given the job.

Having a young woman like Ms. Flynn at the helm represents a significant sea-change in the debate community. In the past, the majority of Team Canada debate coaches were seasoned men in their 40s and 50s. With the help of Team Canada's past female coaches, and the support of The Canadian Student Debate Federation, the indomitable Ms. Flynn refused to let herself develop imposter syndrome. Seated in a leather armchair, wearing her signature black scarf with red ladybugs on it, she explains, "I made it my mission to be the most qualified person who was going to apply."

Aislin Flynn, the youngest woman ever to work as head coach for Team Canada

Aislin Flynn, the youngest woman ever to work as head coach for Team Canada

During a break from practice, Ms. Flynn expounds upon the brilliance of the girls she coaches. She tells me, "Naz is an economics and environmental powerhouse," while "Dasha ends up shining in lots of International Relations motions." Rory is both Ms. Flynn's younger sister and her student. Flynn says of her: "Rory is the best at talking about disenfranchised groups." Ms. Flynn explains her sister excels when discussing women's issues or minority rights because she is able to "voice the concerns of people who have been marginalized in a very respectful way."

This year, the World Schools Debating Championship will take place in Stuttgart, Germany, from July 19th to the 29th. Nations participating in this championship include Sri Lanka, The United States, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Denmark, South Korea, Pakistan, Greece, Israel, and many more. Along with their male teammates, Alex Wu and Luciano Kwon, the girls will engage in 8 debates in the preliminary rounds. The top 16 teams at the tournament will advance to the final rounds.

Will Team Canada advance all the way The Grand Finals again this year? Hardworking but humble, they make no guarantees. They know the international debate community is full of agile young minds, who have more knowledge about current events than many veteran diplomats. The girls, however, seem confident they are doing everything in their power to arrive at the tournament well prepared. Says their coach, "We've done a lot of work to make sure we're ready for whatever comes at us."

 Coach Aislin Flynn helps students Dasha Metropolitansky and Rory Flynn develop an argument.

 Coach Aislin Flynn helps students Dasha Metropolitansky and Rory Flynn develop an argument.

Toward the end of my talks with them, the girls are kind enough to share with me their tips for successful public speaking. Naz suggests young women who wish to become more confident public speakers remember these words: "Believe in yourself at all times." Naz also suggests women "call out mansplaining. Don't let anyone make you feel 'less than' because of your sex." When asked how she maintains her calm and self-assured persona, Dasha argues, "Posture is really important when you speak." She advises practicing in front of the mirror to find the "power pose" that makes you feel like your most capable self. For Dasha, adopting a confident stance make it easier to "project confidence outwards" while debating.

When asked her advice for effective public speaking, Rory, the most experienced debater on the team, is pensive. In a serious tone, she states, "Tell yourself you have the right to be there..." It's a powerful message coming from someone so young, but one countless other women could stand to remember.

It's obvious the girls of Canada's National Debate Team have found their voices. I for one cannot wait to hear what they say with them.