Since they began in 2008, the Munk Debates have served as a forum for great thinkers to discuss big ideas. The debates offer the audience a chance to gain a deeper understanding of an issue by bringing together leading experts willing to engage with their opposition. The quality of debate that results is a welcome reprieve from the shouting matches and cheap rhetorical gimmicks that these days pass for “debate” in Parliament.
There’s just one problem: Where are all the women?
There have been 11 Munk Debates featuring a total of 42 debaters. Only four of those debaters were women: Elizabeth May, Dambisa Moyo, Mia Farrow, and Samantha Power. There has not been a single female participant since 2009, when Elizabeth May participated in a debate on climate change. Looking at the past four years’ worth of Munk Debates, one might conclude that there are no leading female thinkers at all.
Of course, there are many impressive women who would have enriched these sparring matches. For their 2011 debate on China, did the Munk organizers consider asking Madeleine Albright or Condeleeza Rice, both former U.S. Secretaries of State? When the Munk Debates tackled Iran, why not invite Nobel Peace Prize winner and international lawyer, Shirin Ebadi? The Honourable Anne McLellan, former federal Minister of Health, would have been a wonderful addition to the 2010 debate on health care. The next Munk Debate – on economic inequality – is once again a contest between four men. That debate could have featured Elizabeth Warren, the fiery American senator who has made income inequality a central theme of her political career, or Christina Romer, former Chair of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Unfortunately, they will not be there.
The Munk Debates are a symptom of a larger problem. Despite having five female premiers and one female territorial leader, women remain underrepresented in Canadian politics. The share of women in our municipal councils, provincial legislatures, and federal Parliament languishes at around 25 per cent. On average, only 11 per cent of the board members of major Canadian corporations are women and almost three-quarters either do not have any female board members or only have one female board member. Despite high proportions of female law students, only 21 per cent of law firm partners are women in Ontario .
The problem is that the absence of women in these activities shapes our perception of who is entitled to participate in them. When there are only small numbers of women in politics, business, law, or the Munk Debates, these activities become viewed as domains reserved for men. After four years without a single female debater, the Munk Debates are viewed as a man’s arena.
It should go without saying that women are just as capable of debating as men. Including women in the Munk Debates would undoubtedly improve their quality. Owing to different life experiences, women can offer distinct and diverse perspectives. Women bear and raise children. They tend to assume caregiver roles. They face different societal expectations and forms of discrimination than do men. These perspectives should not be marginalized; they are essential to answering the big questions the Munk Debates seek to tackle. How can we have a meaningful discussion about economic inequality without accounting for the fact that Canadian women still earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man and that poverty disproportionately impacts women? Incorporating these perspectives would make the Munk Debates richer, more relevant and closer to the truth.
Including women in the Munk Debates would also create role models. When girls and young women see leading female thinkers meaningfully participating in a traditionally “male” activity, this encourages them to think that those types of activities are open to them as well. Instead of being told that they can do something, they are shown that they can. A recent study shows that simply seeing images of female role models such as Hillary Clinton has positive impacts on women’s confidence in public speaking. This power of demonstration should not be underestimated.
As the most visible instance of quality public debate in Canada, the Munk Debates should stop presenting debate as a man’s domain. They have a responsibility to do better.
Jessica Prince, a litigator in Toronto, is a former top speaker at the World University Debating Championships. Joshua Stark is a Canadian National Debate champion who is currently completing his J.D. at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.