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TEDWomen: Brilliant or Belittling?

womengroup1I grew up in Texas. (It’s no secret if you hear me talk). Forget the podcasts, my relaxed language is tinged with y’alls and drawls. And yes, y’all has both plural and possessive form in case you were curious. I do a pretty good job of keeping it on the down low at work, but there’s always that occasional “fixin’ to” that gives me away. Well, the thing about being a girl growing up in a rough-and-tumble state is that you’re taught to be one tough little cookie. I was playing baseball (the hardball sort) when I was 7 or 8, riding my PawPaw’s horses at 4 or 5, and roughing up the neighborhood boys during tackle football games.

I don’t think I realized I was a girl until at least 14.

My first brush with discovering my X-chromosome origins came when I was about 6 years old. I inadvertently discovered that boys and girls are different after taking my shirt off while outside on a scorching summer day.

While my mom was out getting some much-needed sanity, I was at the baby-sitter sweltering in the sun playing hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids. So as the boys started taking off their sweat-soaked shirts, I, of course, thought it was okay for me to do the same.

Imagine my surprise when I was sternly grabbed by an arm and whisked off to hastily locate my top.

“BUT HEEEEEEEEE DID IT?!” I’m sure I wailed.

“WHY CAN’T AYYYYYYYE???”

I had just been unceremoniously introduced to the concept that “life isn’t fair.” Especially for girls.

So when I came across TEDWomen this week, it was a mix of excitement and reservation. On the one hand, I soak up TED Talks like some people soak up Appletinis. Gotta have my daily fix, and watching TEDs over lunch is becoming habit-forming. My podcasts always feature my latest favorite Talk, and some weeks it’s hard to decide which one to choose.

There are so many incredible people and TED knows how to find them. TED rocks. (There’s a concert idea in that).

But at the same time, since my sunny days as a rabble-rousing girls-libber in the Lone Star State, I’ve always been firmly against segregation or propping up. Singling out specific segments of the population in veiled (or blatant) coddling efforts does more harm than good.

Making special allowances is the equivalent of saying one group isn’t as able, isn’t as driven, isn’t as intelligent, and therefore needs a hand up.

I can feel that 6 year-old seething inside.

While it may improve things in the short-term (and there’s no arguing that Affirmative Action has helped a lot of people and you can’t paint everything with the same brush), in the long-term it generally reinforces the negative perception that created the disparity in the first place. I’m against discrimination and strongly believe pointing out differences in an effort to make compensation only perpetuates the behavior or attitudes you want to discourage.

It seems women haven’t made it as far as we’d thought. Reading from the TEDWomen web page, I felt us go slipping backward about 30 years.



“Over the last several years, our ideas about women have changed. A new lens reveals women as powerful change agents in the areas of economic growth, public health, political stability and beyond. TEDWomen will bring them into focus.”




Was that written in 1975 or in 2010?

And then there was this line on the website that felt like it was either catering to a right-brain/left-brain stereotype, or the ambitious, competitive, testosterone-fueled hunter male vs. the communicative, nurturing, berry-gathering female. Do we really need to go back there?



“TEDWomen will also reveal how women and men, in concert with one another, orchestrate different but complementary approaches to ideas worth spreading.”



I thought that’s what the original TED was about, except for the part about focusing on women being different. Every speaker on TED is different and unique… different nationalities, different ages, different educations, different genders. In past events have women’s speeches been less innovative and dynamic? Is women’s thinking less relevant to the broader audience?

Now my inner 6 year-old is really wound up.

Or maybe TED just wants to create a venue where women can talk about “womany” issues like poverty, sickness, art, and motherhood. If they’re truly ideas worth spreading, why wouldn’t they be integrated into TED? Or create topic-driven events like TEDBusiness, TEDSocial, TEDCulture, or hey, TEDucation.

TED is about bringing together a wide variety of perspectives and influence, and until TEDWomen, I thought it was also free of borders and conventional boundaries. It always felt like TED was about great ideas rising to the top, no matter where or who they came from. Now that there’s a separate event, it’s only going to encourage further segregation, and ultimately a watering down of the TED brand.

Or worse, the original TED will be viewed as the pinnacle event, with presenters at the top of the thinking in their fields, and TEDWomen being viewed as the also-rans.

I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the way to honor and highlight women isn’t by separating them. It’s by deeper inclusion. And considering TED is all about ideas, there was bound to be a better one for achieving it.



Join the Conversation…

Will women resent having to choose between attending a TED conference and a TEDWomen conference?

Will female presenters feel they’re being slighted by being invited to TEDWomen instead of TED?

Will male presenters be invited to TEDWomen?

What are some ideas that would have highlighted women thinkers in TED without segregating them?

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  1. July 22nd, 2010 at 16:23 | #1

    Georgy, I'm so glad you commented, and the story you shared about Podcamp sheds light on something really important in this debate… as women we have to strive to not hold ourselves back. I can see that TEDWomen is an effort to empower women, but as you said it ended up further segregating us. What we want is to be seen as equals (because we are!) and it just feels like there could have been another way to encourage female involvement in TED without a separate event.

    Thank you for saying it… “stop drawing divisions!” Love that line.

    Thanks for your thoughts and I can't wait to go read your blog post!

  2. July 22nd, 2010 at 16:46 | #2

    Jose, you are right. Both boys and girls can learn a lot and be inspired by “Whale Rider.” I'm not familiar with “The Power of One”, but I think if I want to inspire girls to stand up for themselves, a movie with a female lead character would be more impactful. What would be great is a co-ed discussion after about what it means to be a leader. How easy it is to dismiss someone because they don't fit what we're expecting. And what it means to treat each other fairly and with respect.

  3. July 22nd, 2010 at 16:49 | #3

    June,

    Thank you for taking the time to address the concerns brought here, it is really appreciated. I'm sure it's been an interesting couple of days for you all.

    I've always believed that passion plus purpose brings potency to anything. As Michelle mentioned, there is a massive amount of passion around this. And from a group of people who clearly are advocates of TED. We're just looking for a reason to bring potency to TEDWomen.

  4. July 22nd, 2010 at 18:14 | #4

    Amy,

    As always, you bring up good points. You're right, we are privileged women and as Dafna points out, there is still massive amount of disparity to be overcome in our countries, despite the US and the UK being better places to be a woman.

    My point about celebrating the differences is rooted in the idea that if we're equal the let's be equal, if we're not, then let's say it and do something about it. Simply saying “rah, rah girls” seems disingenuous and makes light of a complex issue.

    And as my mother pointed out to me last night, every generation of women defines what it means to be a woman differently. As a woman in my 30's, I really want that definition to come from who I am rather than what I am. And my hope for my 6 year old daughter is that no one ever thinks to have these conversations.

    Because TED is now viewed as a global entity, they are having to encompass the disparity between where women are leading the way and where they are being left behind. As well as walk the fine line between the idealism about ourselves and our position in the world we hold dear in our hearts and the harsh realities that still surround us.

    It's a knife edge that I think many women feel they cut themselves on.

  5. July 22nd, 2010 at 18:36 | #5

    Thanks for the comment! The cost of attending TED is something we haven't addressed, and I'm not sure where to start. I'm not aware of speakers being charged (if they are I would be surprised), but TED freely shares the content of conferences and even encourages TEDx events and restricts the charging of fees. Attending a TED conference is obviously an expensive affair (that we mere mortals can only dream of. ;) But I find it hard to fault TED on that when the organization is so generous with its content. No one is restricted from getting access to the great ideas shared at TED. I'm not sure what their pricing strategy is, but having managed large events I'm sure there's more to the story than we're aware of.

    Thanks for your comment, great insight!

  6. July 22nd, 2010 at 18:47 | #6

    Hi Amy, Thanks for commenting. While I agree that there are disparities in a lot of areas between women and men, my feeling is that TED is the exact place to be discussing brilliant ideas on how to change those things, but it's not the right venue for celebrating a specific gender… or race… or celebrating anything… except ideas.

    I also have a hard time faulting today's man for the patriarchal society that wasn't created by them. (Yes, I know there's another huge debate in this). There are still men who abuse women or have misogynistic views, but many men care just as much about treating women as equals as we do.

    My belief is that TED is about the idea, not the gender, and that women and men have equal footing in the TED program. Both men and women have great ideas. Why would they need to be segregated? That's why the TEDWomen event is causing a stir, because it takes the emphasis off the idea and puts it on the gender of the speaker or the gender of the the people the presentation is about.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking comment!

  7. July 22nd, 2010 at 18:48 | #7

    Thank you! Great to hear your thoughts.

  8. Livepath
    July 22nd, 2010 at 19:09 | #8

    Yes, I have an admittedly limited grasp on how this works for TED, other than some knowlege of how TEDX licenses are granted… and observational insight. TED puts membership and attendance at a premium and uses this, along with screeing techniques to filter attendance in alignment with brand/participation goals. It's very smart – and their ability to drive more membership, more attendance and more conferences makes the model more lucrative. I don't fault them for it either…. I guess I was just thinking out loud – and like I said, TED's brand will be driven by its ability to continue to deliver awesomeness. If TEDW produces more of it… the frenzy will die down, despite the unfortunate language on their website. :-) Thanks again for the awesome post, Michelle.

  9. July 22nd, 2010 at 21:51 | #9

    Lucia,

    By all means, steal away. I have always found it to be far more important to define yourself based on who you are (the good and the bad) than what you are.

  10. July 24th, 2010 at 01:16 | #10

    Wow, I freaking LOVE YOU and I love this post. While I don't find the concept belittling, I don't think the women-centered talks accomplish what people think they might. It's like my concept of feminist – I am one, but by truly succeeding it needs to not exist. Is that too inarticulate to make any sense?

    Anyway, I wrote a post ages ago that women entrepreneurs weren't being fully appreciated online. There was this one blogger who interviewed 11 online “celebs” but included NO women. Which pissed me off. The fact that I was pissed off pissed me off some more.

    In terms of TED, it annoys me that women still need separate groups to make sure we’re heard and supported. To that I say: NAY!

    Seriously, look at what I’m doing RIGHT NOW. I’m expressing my extreme annoyance that women entrepreneurs aren’t appreciated unless they’re actively being recognized as women. WTF? Why does their need to be a separate category? Why wasn’t there a single woman in that rather large list of online entrepreneurs? WHY?! Honestly, someone answer me. I’m about to throw a temper tantrum.

  11. July 24th, 2010 at 14:04 | #11

    Great post (you beat me to it!), and thoughtful comments.

    Let me begin by saying I'm also a die-hard TED fan and supporter. And, like everything else in the universe, TED is not perfect…

    Do we need more women speakers, more powerful women role models in all disciplines, and more focus on issues that impact women and girls? Yes, absolutely.

    In fact, I believe this so strongly that I've devoted most of the past two years to a not-for-profit website (http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/) designed to move that agenda forward.

    Is a TEDWomen conference the best way for TED to support this agenda? In my opinion, no.

    I've been on the more-women-speakers-at-TED-please bandwagon for quite some time. I blogged about it last November after TEDxDubai included only three women in its slate of 20 speakers. They had 12-, 10- and three-minute slots respectively, and one of the three was a 13-year-old girl.

    The post, Speak Up, Speak Out, Take The Stage: The World Needs More TED Women, is here: http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/myblog/speak-up...

    I responded to an interview with Chris Anderson (http://features.bizmore.com/interview/how-to-pr...), in which he said it's hard to find women speakers; my comment is still at the same link.

    June Cohen does an AMAZING job, as does the whole TED team. I attended TED Global 2010 in Oxford – it was mind-blowingly awesome.

    However, I question the statistic that there are 30 – 40% women speakers at TED conferences.

    I researched the numbers before I blogged about the issue in November. I found then:

    Of the 20 speakers highlighted on the TED “home” page at the time, only three (15%) were women (today, July 24, five of 19, or 25% are women).

    Of the 120 speakers listed in the first 10 pages of alphabetic list of speakers on the TED website, only 33 (25%) are women.

    Only six (less than 20%), of the 33 speakers at TED 2008 were women. Their numbers more than tripled (to 19) at TED 2009, but that was still far less than the number of men (33), with whom they shared the stage.

    Sadly, the number of women on the stage at TED actually declined from 19 in 2009 to 13 in 2010, while the number of men increased to 39 from 33.

    By my count, the percentage of women speakers at TEDGlobal was 29%. Yes, they were amazing, but still significantly fewer in number than the men.

    If enough women speakers can be found to grace the stage at TEDWomen, why can't more be found to speak at TED and TEDGlobal?

    I think TED Women would be a superb idea, IF there was already gender parity on other TED stages.

    I'm delighted with the exchange and conversation that has been initiated around the TEDWomen conference. In my experience, dissenting opinions and discussion are critical to finding the best solutions to issues and challenges.

    Finally, there 170+ TED Talks by amazing TED women on my website here: http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/ted-talks/index...

    Susan Macaulay

  12. Lynn Harris
    July 25th, 2010 at 12:51 | #12

    I attended TED Global in Oxford last week and I also attended the meeting where the concept of TED Women was launched to a wider group. My understanding from that meeting is that TED Women will be a celebration of Women's ideas and accomplishments and will not be a conference centred on women's issues. Their intention is to have men also speaking and men in the audience. If they achieve this then it will not be a typical 'women's conference.” I think this is a genuine attempt to promote women and to do good.
    I asked Chris Anderson directly why we don't have more women speakers at regular TED conferences – his reply – they can't find enough women who will speak. This is the bit that confuses me. If this is true, how can they find sufficient women to speak at TED Women. Pat Mitchell (prime mover behind TED women) told me that some women need a 'safe environment' in which to get up on stage and speak and that's what they intend to create at TED Women. I don't see how speaking in front of hundreds of people at TED Women is any 'safer' than speaking in front of hundreds of people at a regular TED conference.
    I applaud any genuine attempt to support women in stepping forward as leaders and I'm willing to give TED Women a chance to see what it can achieve. I have the same reservations that you highlight in your excellent article – but let's give TED a chance and see what can be accomplished.
    Lynn Harris
    Author
    Unwritten Rules. What Women Need To Know About Leading In Today's Organizations.
    http://www.unwrittenrulesthebook.com

  13. LynnHarris
    July 25th, 2010 at 21:07 | #13

    By the way Michelle, I thought your post was excellent and I've posted it on my Unwritten rules-the book facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Unwritten-Rules-T...

  14. July 26th, 2010 at 14:51 | #14

    The question I have here is similar to many of the others, but why is TED fragmenting the “ideas worth spreading”? This goes beyond the superfluous TEDWomen (if we need to have more thoughtful discussions, then let's have them with the ENTIRE community of TED), to other events as well. Focus topics can be beneficial in some instances, but if it becomes too scattered, the benefits of TED (cross-pollination of ideas for inspiration) become diluted.

    If we need new topics, let's have more frequent events, not different events, we won't all be able to follow all of the possible focus topics and still gain the benefits of all the ideas.

  15. Amy
    July 26th, 2010 at 16:14 | #15

    Why are you interpreting this as not being with the entire community of TED? Men and women can present and men and women can attend. The reason they are having the event is not to segregate but because they believe that this is a topic steam too big to adequately cover at a TED event. Would you rather they said, instead of TEDWoman we'll just devote an entire TED to discussing these important issues? I suspect people wouldn't be happy with that decision. So instead, they've said, we think there's a lot going on here and we can't adequately address it as part of the TED conference so in order to give it the thought and attention it deserves we're going to hold a special event to address it. If it doesn't work, they won't do it again.

    And FYI – there are already a range of TED events that go on apart from the big one and so far, it seems like people are able to follow what they are interested in. I would never look at the huge range of talks on the TED website and say that it's bad because there is such a diverse range of them. I don't see why suddenly adding a special event that focuses on women will suddenly make this already huge confluence of talks and topics difficult to follow.

    I feel bad for the organizers who are trying to do something good – the important word being trying – and everyone is so quick to judge the event's success before they've even had an opportunity to hold one. They already have some pretty amazing speakers lined up. I wish we could take a 'wait and see' approach and give them the benefit of the doubt. They seem to have a pretty good idea of what they're doing – otherwise we wouldn't all feel so connected to and passionate about the TED brand.

  16. jonmcrawford
    July 26th, 2010 at 17:16 | #16

    I'm not saying that it won't be a worthwhile event, or that I'm judging it to be lacking before it happens. I am simply saying that branding the event as TEDWomen will likely limit the audience that attends, (not that men would not be welcome, but would be less likely to attend a conference specifically for women) when the whole purpose of TED is to take new ideas and reach audiences that would not normally have encountered those ideas.

    I also agree that the website is easy to navigate and find talks, I am not disputing that point. These talks will therefore be accessible to internet users the same as the others. However, we are discussing the physical conference that is scheduled separately as TEDWomen.

    Why not continue to feed the same ideas through the existing pipeline? The audience exposure will be more diverse, and therefore the impact should be greater.

  17. jonmcrawford
    July 26th, 2010 at 17:20 | #17

    reading my own post, I just realized I'm proving my point here on attendee bias, I referred to TEDWomen as “specifically for women”, when I'm fully aware that it is actually specifically ABOUT women. I think that's the problem here, the branding creates a picture of the event that may not necessarily be true, and may inadvertently discourage participation.

  18. July 28th, 2010 at 08:42 | #18

    I was at TEDGlobal2009 and this month too, when they announced this new conference, and immediately went online to see the reaction at their Facebook page. 85 negative comments. I had my own questions about this new event and whether TEDGlobal could be showcasing more women who weren't singing, dancing or reciting poetry on-stage.

    I also wonder if it's true that they can't find women to speak. They are not the only conference which claims this. I both hope this is true for their sake, and hope it is not true — because if it is true, we have a serious problem with qualified women speakers.

    One odd thing I heard at TEDGlobal this year: speaker Laurie Santos, a cognitive researcher, was asked why none of the lab assistants in her slides were women. Didn't she have women students and assistants? Yes, she said she did. But they didn't want to be photographed.

  19. Sf
    July 30th, 2010 at 14:11 | #19

    I can understand the issues you raise and agree with many of your points of view, however I also still enjoy female only environments on occasions, as I am sure men enjoy male only environments. Watching Mad Men makes me see how far culture has travelled, but I am completely open to both inclusion AND separation rather than either / or – men have just got their first radio hour on radio 5 in UK, men have got magazines that appeal to them and so have women, so have children and older people, different nationalities enjoy different styles and tones – sometimes it's great to be together sometimes it's great to be apart. I am happy that TED are experimenting to ensure they can include as many people in as many ways as possible. If female identity is a dimension they want to test then that's fine with me.

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