Monday, September 7, 2015

Why Women Almost Never Win the World Championship of Public Speaking

 "Image copyright 2015 Angie Key as Keyframe Photography,
used with permission."
How's that for a charged title?

It could just as easily be this one: Why Asians Almost Never Win the World Championship of Public Speaking

Or: Why Speakers Over 7 Feet Tall NEVER Win the World Championship of Public Speaking

Or my favorite: Why a Father of Six with a Fake Leg has Yet to the World Championship of Public Speaking

In the wake of August's World Championship of Public Speaking, two major arguments quickly hit the Toastmaster world.

1. Order bias (1st, 2nd, and 3rd went to the last three speakers, with the winner, Mohammed Qahtani the last speaker of 10)

2. Gender Bias - no women even made the Final Ten.

I'll save order bias for another day - there's a lot of data crunching that goes into that, and it's not something we can readily fix. Women winning the Championship, however, is something I can talk about. At least from a biased male point of view.

Let start by mentioning a couple major aspects of my own competitive career. First, I have been on the losing end to women several times. At club. At Division (twice!). At District. At the Semi's. And even in the finals, losing to the last woman World Champion, the late LaShunda Rundles.
2008 World Champion LaShunda Rundles
So I get a little amped up when I hear people accuse Toastmasters of being biased against women.

Yes, we've only had four female champions since 1973, when women were first allowed in Toastmasters. We've had a small percentage of women in the Finals in the first place, but we've had more than a few place in the top three. Mary Cheyne, Angela Louie, Katherine Morrison, Kelly Sargeant, to mention some from the past decade. But still, a small percentage overall. Indeed, it isn't even that unusual for the Finals to be all male.

So - there's a problem. Supposedly.

Judging bias? Men like male speakers better? Women don't like other women speakers? Women speakers aren't assertive enough? Women speakers are too assertive? Women speakers pick bad topics? Women have the wrong tone of voice? Too fat? Too Skinny? Too tall? (a love shout-out to Libra Ford!) Too much jewelry? Wearing gawdawful shoes?

The list I've heard from people is endless. It all adds up to women are...well...women!
Yeah, well, SO FREAKIN' WHAT? Men are also...well...MEN!

 "Image copyright 2015 Angie Key as Keyframe Photography,
used with permission."
Flawed. Bad beards. Bad dressers. (I heard this year's world champion criticized for having too small a suit, and an 'unconventional shirt'.) Terrible speech topics. Too loud. Too animated. Too cocky.

Are they as heavily criticized as women? No. In fact, dressing for the stage is far easier for the average male, and no, we don't usually get penalized for being too fat, too skinny, or even being just plain ugly. I do believe society in general is far more critical of women than men in almost every way. That can't help but seep into judging. If we are going to call that judging bias, then yes, it exists, and no, it shouldn't.

But I don't think that's the main reason. A contributing factor, perhaps, but not the main reason.

Let's face facts: more men lose in the contest that women. It's true. I think there were 17 women in the semi's this year. That means, out of 96 contestants, 10 men won, 17 women lost, and 59 men lost. Unbelievable. All those poor men. And several of those women placed, making it even worse for the men. Oh, the humanity!

Therefore, IF there's bias, it's more on the lower levels, right? Gotta be. But then I hear the problem is actually that not enough women enter, lowering their odds in general. Like the speech competition is a slot machine or a dice game. Yes, luck enters in to a degree, but it isn't really an 'odds-based' competition - it's a quality-based competition. Out of 10 speakers, we cannot objectively say each speaker has a 10 percent chance of victory. 'Chance' is directly countered by experience, talent, and performance. Otherwise we could just draw the winner the way we draw for order.

Wait a minute, Rich. Are you saying that women aren't good enough speakers in this competition?

Well.....Yes. Yes I am. And neither are the literally thousands of more MEN speakers in this competition than women. The competition starts with 30,000 contestants. Based on 18 percent of the Semi-Finalists being women, 4100 of the 30,000 are women. That means there were 25,890 men who weren't good enough EITHER. Holy freaking COW!

See - other than a tiny percentage of speakers every year, NONE of us are good enough. Because it's a competition. With ONE winner. ONE winner every step of the way.

Is it possible that a man gave a better speech than any of the other women or men in there Club, Area, Division, District, Semi, or Finals round? OF COURSE. Is it possible a woman who placed second, third or not at all in one contest would have WON in a different heat? Or even a man who placed second, third, or not at all? Of course!


Put all the finalists in one semi, and all but one loses, and the Finals is totally reshuffled. For instance, last year, Joe Grondin and James Jeffley were in the same Semi-Final. Joe had been to the Finals before, James was a first year Toastmaster. James won. This year, they were both back, in separate Semis, and both won and went to the Finals. Neither placed. Luck? Maybe. Odds? Maybe. If you really want to game the odds, put all the women in one Semi-Final - yeah, there's a solution built for rioting.

The reality is, allowing a little room for human judging error, that the 10 male Finalists this year simply HAD THE BETTER SPEECH than any of the other women and men in their contests from club on up. Except the champion, who took second at District, but that's a whole other cool and inspiring story.

Could a woman have won a Semi in 2015? Sure. Different set of judges, perhaps. Put them in a different heat, perhaps. The only woman I watched this year who took second that I personally thought could have won her semi was beaten by a speaker who finished in the top 3 of the Finals - so we're really splitting hairs with that one.

Most of you aren't going to like this, but the answer for women is the same answer I have for me. We aren't winning the World Championship of Public Speaking because our speeches, while stunning, spectacular, and skillful, are not as stunning, spectacular, and skillful as those who beat us. Even if they only beat us by a single, measly point. One measly point is enough.

What can you do about it?

Write better speeches. Practice your delivery more. Study what wins, and what doesn't. Don't make excuses. If you're charged up about a woman winning, and know one who should be competing but isn't, convince them to compete! If you think judging stinketh, then volunteer to give judging training - I'm helping with judging training in my own district in just a couple days!

Find coaching - be it from a man or a woman, or both. I know Olivia Schofield, 2011 Finalist, and Chelsea Avery, coach for 2012 Champ Ryan Avery, have started VocalWomen specifically for coaching women speakers. There's no shortage of women coaches available, in Toastmasters OR the real world. I coach women speakers all the time, both in the contest, AND the real world.

Finally, keep in mind two truths. First - you can't control everything. The judges, the audience, the other speakers. Your Sgt. at Arms. Your Toastmaster. The stage size. The microphone. You can only control you, your content and your performance. Focus on winning what you can control.

Second, losing isn't an indictment. It doesn't mean you're not a great speaker. Women, it sure as HELL doesn't mean you aren't as good as a male speaker. All it means for you, and the men, and that father of six with the fake leg - is that we didn't have the best speech that day, in that moment, for those judges. We, and eventually 29,999 others - we ALL LOSE.

Dark Phoenix literally giving Wolverine the Death Stare
OK - I can feel the death stares. Send your hate mail. I'm not a woman, so I don't know what's its like, and I don't appreciate 'male privilege', and I shouldn't even be writing any of this. I know. I'll probably never get another 1st place vote from a woman again. Or a man, for that matter, because, after all, at the end of the day, I've actually just said more of them apparently suck at speaking in the contest than women.

It's almost enough to make me think competition is a bad thing. Almost.

Here's to seeing all the best speakers - male, female, fluid, tall, short, thin, fat, old, young, high-pitched, low-pitched, low energy, high energy, well dressed, poorly dressed, white, yellow, brown, orange, or black - in DC next year. Most importantly - may the winner be a - WINNER.


  1. I actually had an area governor say to me, after I placed 3rd in a Humorous Speech contest that it was hard to compete against the men. This was a new TM district for me and it did give me pause. The next year, I place 2nd in Division, to a man who was in 2 clubs and had a following. Several people, including one of the judges, came up to me afterward and said they thought I should have won. That's only two contests. I did win the District Humorous contest a few years prior. Anyway, what I've learned about TM contests both as a contestant and judge is that the judging is very subjective. In all of the clubs I've belonged to, no one gets good training to be a judge. Sometimes it's difficult to get people to do the judging. I would hope that all of that goes away when you get to the upper levels. For me - I'm focusing on giving a TED talk:)

    1. The lower the level, the more unpredictable the quality of judging, based on number of judges needed vs. trained and available. Good luck with your TED talk!

  2. First off, Points for the X-Men reference..Next, a senior TM I read posited that it was the Judges that were the problem; in level of training and consistency. Being to more events and this level of event therefore having some experience in it, what say you to this challenge? I don't know what the qualifications are for say, Olympic competitions or even Pet Shows. One could surmise that maybe the Intl Speech Competition might have qualified judges but the road to that event could be filled with people on the end of the Chili Cookoff Contest, certainly not Michelin/Zagat critics but more like "I know what I like and this just tasted better." In speaking, it could be, "Yeah that Hopkins guy sounded good but I like that other person more." Thoughts?

    1. No matter how well-trained and objective the judges are, it's always relative to an individual's life experience. Human nature plays a part, no matter what.

  3. I am willing to bet next 1 of next 2 WCPS will be a woman

    1. As long as the other one is me, I'm cool with that :)

  4. I agree. It is what it is. I wonder though if you've caught your breath yet? - I felt breathless just reading this. :)

    1. It was a monster to edit, I'll grant you that. :)

  5. Sorry champ statistics won't win in this argument. There are more judgemental biases going on here. It's the same reason we don't have as many women as CEOS of fortune 500 companies. Whether or not judges are even consciously aware of it there are subconscious biases present. While we all want to believe equality exists in this world it doesn't.

    1. Statistics aren't my main argument. Nor am I arguing that judging bias doesn't exist to a degree. I'm saying be a better speaker - control what you can control. Equality certainly doesn't exist in this world, on many, many levels. Reaching greater equality requires both sides to walk towards each other to one degree or another, in most instances.

  6. Rich, this is the second post of yours I have read and the second one I agree with.

    The two women in my semifinal round did not win because their speeches were not as strong. It had NOTHING to do with their gender. I cannot speak for the other nine rounds.

    Why did I lose at the finals? Was it because I was from the USA or because I have white skin? NO! I did not place because I did not do what Rich said: my speech was not as good, my presentation was not as smooth, and I did not have a coach. The only person I have to blame for my results is me.

    If TI were bias against women why is a majority of our membership female? Why would they stick around -- young ones in particular -- if there was a bias against them? Didn't TI just announce that of the 96 districts directors, only 30 or so are men? If there is a gender bias in TI, it seems to be against men.

    The blunt truth is on August 13, 2015 in all 10 semifinal rounds, none of the women competing did what needed to be done to win their rounds. Not because their gender prevented them from doing so but for any number of reasons they did not get the scores needed to advance. I DO NOT say that as an arrogant twit who made it to the finals; I am channeling my inner Jim Rohn, "Those are the facts."

    Consider these questions: why were two of the four Americans from California, and both of them were black? Was there a racial or state bias? Why were the other two Americans from adjoining states? With a majority of TI members from the USA why were only four of the ten Americans? Any bias there? OF COURSE NOT!

    Why was no nation south of the equator represented? Any bias there? OF COURSE NOT!

    Why were all three of the winners brown-skinned men? Could it be that on August 15, 2015 during the World Championship of Public they gave the best speeches? OF COURSE!

  7. You got it all wrong Rich. Women get the wrong end of the stick in Toastmasters because the culture leans that way. Maybe someday its all reversed and a woman may right a blog about why men don't get to the finals.

    1. You are completely entitled to your opinion Raul. Thanks for reading, and responding :)

  8. The truth sometimes hurts, but fits perfectly, like skin. Good job Rich.

  9. Please. There is a preference for men that has nothing to do with ability. Plain and simple.

  10. A recently-engaged friend said to me the other day that she wanted to be married by a man, because being married by a woman "would just be weird". Until we can get over that unconscious bias that men are somehow more authoritative, more pleasing to listen to, with their lower voices and broader shoulders, then men will continue to win speech contests. There was a time when people were not as comfortable with women being funny and comedic, and there was research that backed this up. I am happy to say that this prejudice is falling by the wayside, with some amazing women comedians knocking down the barriers.
    Toastmasters need to lose that old-world, men-are-somehow-more-appealing bias that so many of us unconsciously hold. It doesn't just apply to gender, BTW. I have seen really great speakers not given their due because they are older... simply because they are seniors.
    Anyway, I don't want to get into a sparring contest. I just want to point out that there is no such thing as objectivity in judging speeches, because the speaker is part of the package and we seem to prefer men. But I am hopeful for change.



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