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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 21st, 2010 at 13:28 | #1

    I think it's insulting. If they want to bring more female perspectives, ideas and/or topics into TED, then they should invite and encourage more female speakers. Why is there a need to make it a separate event? (Hint: there isn't.) I “get” what they were probably trying to accomplish, in highlighting women, but I think it marginalizes women's contributions.

  2. July 21st, 2010 at 13:30 | #2

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.What I find fascinating about the quotes you pulled from the TEDWomen website is that the very existence of a separate event belies the statements they're making. The best way to bring the ideas of women into focus is to present them to the widest possible audience–not a subset of it. Similarly, the best way to show the different ways different people approach different topics is to present them side-by-side, where it's easiest to contrast and compare them–not by further separation and segregation.

    The creation of TEDWomen as a separate event hurts my impression and perception of TED most of all. How can a brand that's supposed to represent the leading edge of thinking and ideas put forward an idea that is so colossally provincial and outdated?

  3. July 21st, 2010 at 13:32 | #3

    This is a very interesting question, and particularly for me because Sweden is so hot on equality. We have laws to ensure there's an equal percentage of men and women in the workplace, say, as university professors.

    I personally believe employment should always be on merit, although it's impossible to ensure that employers don't have gender agendas when assessing merits.

    In terms of TED I certainly wouldn't want to speak at a TEDmen event. I'd want to speak to a diverse audience. Surely one of the great things about TED Talks is the ability to bring new ideas to as wide an audience as possible. As a man, I'd feel automatically excluded from a TED women talk – as if I were intruding on a private space. However, I've listened to feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Toril Moi and been blown away by their cogent ideas.

  4. July 21st, 2010 at 13:44 | #4

    I had a tiny rant about this on Twitter after I saw it being discussed. It's not because I don't believe there are some issues women face that are unique, and not because I don't enjoy conversations and discussions with women. Rather, I see this as TED's way of going “pat pat pat” on our heads, and shuffling us off to have tea together — and certainly not a way to elevate gender-specific debates.

    If an issue is important, it's important enough to discuss as a wider community. If it only affects some portions of the community, everyone else in the community can learn and grow in understanding of what that segment faces. It's not like TED hasn't addressed niche subjects in the past — that's part of what's interesting there.

    If they're being asked to have a lot of feminist discussions and they don't want to, and this is the easiest way to appease people without putting them on center stage, then perhaps they need to more clearly articulate the kinds of discussions they want to be having — rather than shuffling everyone off to chat about things that are specific to them in their own, isolated little space.

  5. July 21st, 2010 at 13:49 | #5

    Teri, You bring up a great point about TEDWomen marginalizing women's contributions. It's really a shame because as you say, it probably would have been a much better idea to invite and encourage more female speakers rather than creating a separate event. Thanks for commenting!

  6. July 21st, 2010 at 13:51 | #6

    The best way to promote equality, in my opinion, is just that; Equality. Respect that both genders are just as capable as each other. Treat each other equally. Don't favor a side. That, I feel, is true equality.

    The problem lies in the fact that this act creates a wall that differentiates both genders. It is okay, to start a conference that targets a specific demographic. But when you start drawing a line, and differences form, there's a problem there. Having a side that branches away from the mainstream and declaring it a medium for women may put across the message that women don't belong in the mainstream.

    Bad move there, TED.

    Just my opinion. What do you think?

  7. July 21st, 2010 at 13:55 | #7

    Hi Tamsen, I love your response. You summed up an important concept I didn't touch on in the post, maybe the most relevant argument against TEDWomen… YES, the best way to bring focus to the ideas of women is by giving them the widest audience possible and having ideas shared side-by-side. Not by separation.

    It's sad to see your perception of TED hurt in the same way mine was. TED is so wonderful and brilliant. I just can't believe someone in the organization didn't stand up and say “Let's keep thinking. There's a better way.”

  8. July 21st, 2010 at 13:55 | #8

    The burning question I had (and still have) is how the organizers of such event would determine who is a suitable speaker for TED v. TEDW. Some of the most compelling, thought-provoking and incredible speakers of late have been women discussing traditionally “women's” issues – things like protecting children globally from warfare and disease and allowing individual freedom and choice to determine one's life path – not what is dictated. So will these be considered only for TedW now? If so, the very audience these messages need to reach would miss out on incredible, life-changing discussions. I think the outcry will cause them pause and, I hope, re-evaluation of this idea. Thanks – great post!

  9. July 21st, 2010 at 13:59 | #9

    I can only agree with what's been said already. The idea probably looked good on paper, but I assume the reality is that most TEDsters belong to a more educated bunch and to us it can easily be seen as a thoughtless act accidentally hurting where we are in relation to equality for women.

    As Jon is from Sweden I am from Denmark where the laws are similar so I goes against everything I've been brought up to honour and believe in.

  10. July 21st, 2010 at 14:03 | #10

    Jon, It's great to hear from the perspective of a man on this topic. It didn't occur to me that men may feel ambivalent about speaking at a TED event… the unofficial “TEDMen” event. Your line of thinking brings up some interesting questions. Would most men even be interested in attending a TEDWomen event or would they feel, as you say, like they're “intruding on a private space.” And what would that do to TEDWomen events in the future? Would few men attend? Would that create a situation where the TEDWomen event has to start competing with TED for the women attendees, creating further segregation?

    And back to what Tamsen said, we end up with a situation where an outdated idea continues to be perpetuated.

  11. July 21st, 2010 at 14:05 | #11

    I'm still of two minds about this issue. I, like Michelle, am a big believer in TED, and yet, the discussion I was having with Michelle and Tamsen and Teresa on twitter yesterday did make me realize how patronizing TED was being.

    I think I'm seeing things differently because of my age. Girls who grew up when I did were constantly told “You can do anything!” and expected to deliver on that promise. We've outstripped men in college attendance, in professional degrees, and we are consistently weathering the recession better. I was told that people like me would change the world, and I am seeing steps in that direction every single day.

    And yet, when I watch TED presentations (online, but someday I WILL get that invitation… eyes on the prize), I am overwhelmed at the number of men I see talking. I don't take their presence as a sign that only men can change things or have big ideas, but it doesn't gibe with the bill of goods I was sold. I know how to be inspired by women – and I'm sure many of the thinkers who would be at TEDWomen have done amazing things and should be honored with top billing at the full conference, in my opinion – the question is, TED Organizers: do you? Or is it lip service?

  12. July 21st, 2010 at 14:13 | #12

    Meg, that's such an interesting way of looking at the issue. Love it. The whole premise of TED is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” You just connected the dots to a great point: If it's an idea worth spreading, why should it be limited to a split audience or compartmentalized? Everyone can and should have the opportunity to learn from the ideas and experiences of different people. That's what TED is supposed to be about, so actually TEDWomen is seriously off-brand. Thanks for commenting, Meg. Really enjoyed your thoughts.

  13. July 21st, 2010 at 14:28 | #13

    Hi Shawn, I completely agree. It does feel like all of the sudden women don't belong in the mainstream when you look at it from that perspective. I'm with you, I really wish TED would have come up with a solution focused on something that wasn't gender specific.

    Thanks again for the comment! Always enjoy hearing your thoughts.

  14. July 21st, 2010 at 14:34 | #14

    Jeannie, Thanks so much for the comment. Very thought-provoking. You're absolutely right about important messages being missed by the wider audience, and life-changing discussions being relegated to a more narrow event. From your lips to TED's ears. I hope they choose to change course so great ideas aren't marginalized.

  15. July 21st, 2010 at 14:48 | #15

    Hi Robert, Thanks for weighing in on the issue. It never occurred to me before that in other more progressive countries there might be an even harsher view of TEDWomen. At first glance it does look good on paper, but I think we can all agree that TED is held to a higher standard of thinking… and ideas should undergo strong evaluation before implementation. Thanks for your thoughts!

  16. July 21st, 2010 at 14:50 | #16

    Ironically I was just watching a panel discussion of all men this morning and thinking, as per usual, “How do I get myself a seat at that table?”

    I don't want my own table…
    I don't want them to extend the table and add a pity seat on the corner to make the ladies happy…
    I want them to boot one of those dudes and give me HIS seat instead.

    I do think that most conferences predominately feature male presenters. And I have seen men get bookings that I know I'm more qualified for. So, yes, sexism is alive in well not just in the world of event planning, but in the world, period.

    But I'm not convinced that having women-only events is the way to fix this.

    I was like you as a kid, Michelle. When I wasn't allowed to play, I would throw a very unlady-like fit tell everyone around me that this WASN'T FAIR. (I still do.) The reality is that actions like that get attention and they can lead to change. Taking your toys and going to play on another playground never will.

  17. July 21st, 2010 at 15:05 | #17

    Rebecca, you've touched on something that maybe we should explore. We grew up as girls in a time when we were encouraged to be anything we wanted… whether it was a fireman, an astronaut, or President of the United States. For women in the younger generations, we didn't see the kind of separation our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers experienced. And for many, it didn't occur to us that there were any limits.

    I remember hearing about baseball tryouts in second grade and running home to tell my Dad that I wanted to play. (I'll show HIM that he didn't need a first-born son!) Of course it was a little puzzling when showing up to tryouts and discovering I was the only girl. But that only made me want to try harder, and it still never made me feel I shouldn't be included. What you've touched on is the possibility that whoever is running TED and developing TEDWomen may be from older generations that felt more separation and they're still trying to bridge a gap that's already been built. And we've had cars running across it for years now.

    The wording on the site felt so out of place for 2010. Women have been contributing at high levels for decades, not just “the last several years.” I agree with you… women with ideas worth spreading should get top billing at the full conference.

    And to keep things in perspective, if they had tried to start a segregated girls' baseball team back when I was 7, I would have balked at that, too.

  18. July 21st, 2010 at 15:09 | #18

    >> Ironically I was just watching a panel discussion of all men this morning and thinking, as per usual, “How do I get myself a seat at that table?”

    To me that covers the whole blog and the conversation in one sentence. Like it!

  19. July 21st, 2010 at 15:15 | #19

    Jen, How did I know you'd feel this way? ;)

    You're such a firecracker! Thanks for the bold thoughts. I'm with you, I don't want another table. I want to be at the table where the action is happening. Add more chairs to the table if you have to. And if there's way too many great people for one table, segment for topic, not for gender. Although, honestly I would hate to see any separation at all because as others have said today, we can learn from people and topics we may not hear about all the time. That's the whole point behind spreading ideas.

  20. July 21st, 2010 at 15:30 | #20

    I always loved competing with the boys. In school, since they yelled right back.
    In sports, well, I wasn't as good. So I liked playing against other girls because they weren't as pushy.

    I'm sure the analysts would have a field day with me.

  21. July 21st, 2010 at 15:33 | #21

    The very second this was announced I thought, this is unnecessary. TED is all about great minds not genders. World issues can be tackled by both sexes equally. A new conference is not needed. They are heading back to a policy of separate but equal.

  22. July 21st, 2010 at 15:40 | #22

    Hey there, Ms Michelle,

    I've been reading the other comments and yes, they make a great point; Why limit the sharing of ideas? Its not conducive to the mission of TED. As much as I understand that there are some ideas and topics that are more gender-sensitive, this is just not the right way to do it.

    1) It ousts the female audience from the mainstream (Suggestively)
    2) It doesn't promote the mission of TED
    3) It's borderline sexist (At least to me)

    I think something they could work on, is to start a TEDmen for male-sensitive topics. Just a thought. *Cancel out inequality caused by a misled sense of equality for women by introducing equality for men* Lol!

    Just a thought. =D
    Shawn

  23. July 21st, 2010 at 16:12 | #23

    Thank you for this, Michelle. Like you, I grew up playing with boys. Lots of them. And when we played Cowboys and Indians and they suggested I be the pioneer woman tending the log cabin, I told them where to go in short order.

    Dear TED, Here's an “Idea worth spreading.” Women don't need their own conference. We are not Bud Light. We don't want to sit on pink chairs and talk about our periods, hormones or menopause. Or boys. Except maybe we do. We want to talk about how you boys need to make room for us at the table. About how ridiculous and short-sighted it is to piss off a huge audience that has supported you and helped make you known. And how insane it is that we are still having THIS conversation 30+ years after the so-called Women's Rights movement (which sprang up when the “girls” in the SDS got tired of taking orders from the boys, and couldn't help but notice that while campaigning for the rights of draftees, African Americans and others, the girls were the silent 2nd-class citizens). Did you even ask any women what they thought before launching the TEDWomen conference? My hunch is “No.”

    Now, girls and boys, another good way to make your feelings known is to use the Contact link on the bottom of the TED site. http://www.ted.com/contact And link them back to here!

    Also, if you know or have young girls, I highly recommend watching the movie “Whale Rider” with them. And setting an example so they hopefully will never have these discussions when they grow up.

  24. July 21st, 2010 at 17:24 | #24

    Kevin, It's so great to hear from another guy. Very well said. “TED is all about great minds not genders.” Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    Kat, WOW. You're blowing me away with your passion on the topic. There's so much to respond to… First off, excellent point on TED upsetting an audience that's been so enthusiastic and supportive of its efforts. The way to repay the sharing of our love for all things TED was not to create a separate event for us! And what's ironic is that unlike 10-20 years ago, in this day and age catering to women in a segregating way is now bordering on politically incorrect. We want equality, not separation. As you said, it's essentially taking us back to a conversation we were having decades ago.

    Times have changed. Women's ideas belong on the main stage. If they're good enough for TED, they should be good enough for TED.

    And Whale Rider. I should have known you'd be a fan of that movie. I proudly have it on DVD and it's one of my favorites! I lend it out quite a bit, too. One of these days I'll have to buy a stack and start handing them out to friends who haven't seen it. Thanks for mentioning it, so relevant for this topic.

    Wish we could have played together when we were kids. At least we're getting to play together now. ;)

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and send a message to TED with this link. Keep us posted on any response you get!

  25. adamleedesign
    July 21st, 2010 at 17:31 | #25

    Here's the problem I see with it. If I'm looking at a list of TED talks, deciding which one to watch, I'm just as likely to choose one by a woman as I am a man. My selection will be based purely on the topic and how relevant it is to me.

    However, if there is another list specifically called TEDWomen then I will be less likely to choose from that list. Not because I think women are any less capable of sharing great ideas but because if they are making that distinction then it must be because the talks will be more relevant to women than they are to men. I don't really see why any TEDTalks would be more relevant to one gender or the other but by separating them they are making that implication.

    It's disappointing to see an institution that I respect segregating people like this. Yes, women can bring a different point of view. Just like someone from the US can bring a different point of view than someone from India, or a Christian compared to an athiest. Are we really going to separate every single group? If not then why choose just one group.

  26. espeterson
    July 21st, 2010 at 17:31 | #26

    Geesh, it's painfully obvious to me that TED has taken a wrong turn here. Could it be that their research tells them that the demographic of the original TED slants heavily toward male viewers? On one hand, I'd love to hear their rationale. On the other hand, I'd hate to be the poor SOB that has to answer to what I expect to be an all-out all-gender denouncement of the decision. Whoever it is will soon know what it feels like to be Peter Arnell, defending the failed re-packaging of Tropicana orange juice (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJ4yF4F74vc).

  27. July 21st, 2010 at 18:40 | #27

    Kevin, I agree with you… and that's one of the reasons I included an aside about affirmative action. Although if you go down to the level of the principle, what I actually support is “equality action.” I think we all understand that affirmative action was enacted at a time when there was a serious problem with discrimination and more aggressive measures were taken than what we need now. Today we have an African-American president. It's more difficult to argue that different races and different genders aren't getting access to opportunities. And I doubt Obama would have appreciated it if he was told “We'll just block off this area of the U.S. for you to lead and talk about the issues important to you.” Whoa!

    We have to toe a tightrope… the point where “equality” action becomes a “compensatory” action is where we risk losing ground in battles we thought we'd already won.

  28. July 21st, 2010 at 18:53 | #28

    Adam, That's one of the things that was bugging me, too. How are TED faithful supposed to choose between TED and TEDWomen?

    Not everyone can attend 10 (or even two!) conferences a year. Most everyone has to be selective because of vacation time, family obligations, budget, or just because there's no way to attend every single event. By creating two separate events, people are going to become confused about which to attend. Not to mention, networking becomes polarized and we end up moving toward, as Tamsen said, “provincial” divisions.

    At that point you have women supporting and seeking support from primarily women, and the men at TED left to support each other. And then we're back to the boys club and the ladies who lunch. It's so disheartening because TED was building something that counteracted that kind of thinking, a focus on the IDEA. But that's being compromised now.

  29. July 21st, 2010 at 19:05 | #29

    How do you get a seat at the table? Contact the organizers and show why you'd be a valuable addition to the discussion. Same as a lot of us menfolk do.

  30. July 21st, 2010 at 19:12 | #30

    Eric, your comparison the Tropicana scandal leads into another great issue. What the heck does TED do now? They've partnered with the Paley Center for Media, this is no small deal. I seriously doubt anyone will be sending back the business cards on this one.

    BTW, here's a link to the Paley Center: http://bit.ly/b0b5C3

    Interesting, on the Paley/TED web page, in the content they state that TEDWomen “will focus on how women think and work, communicate and collaborate, learn and lead—what this means and why it matters to all of us.” Are they really getting what matters to us? 95% of the women who've responded in tweets or comments agree that they see themselves as equals to men, and are disturbed that TED is creating a separate event. What matters to us is, (as Jen Kane put it) “having a seat at the same table.”

    We want to collaborate and communicate, learn and lead… with men and alongside men. If making that statement on the website, while executing the opposite, wasn't so hurtful it would be comical.

    Thanks for bringing up an interesting aspect of the topic, Eric!

  31. July 21st, 2010 at 19:52 | #31

    Michelle, I think we're tracking here. The following has been in my head so I went and found the quote: “Women's novels used to be invariably sent to women's reviewers, and it was no mark of respect.” Literary critic Wilfrid Sheed in the early 1970s,

  32. July 21st, 2010 at 20:08 | #32

    Michelle –

    As one Texas girl to another, you've done a brilliant job of summing up my annoyance with the whole event. I, like several others here mentioned, had a bit of a rant that evolved into a long discussion over Twitter when I became aware of the conference yesterday. TEDNews contacted me asking for feedback, so at least somewhere int he TED universe they are listening.

    I'm incredibly torn about this conference. My initial reaction from the splash page about the conference was frustration. I found the whole notion that “over the past several years” that “ideas on women have changed” to simply be wrong. Ideas about women have been evolving and changing rapidly, at least in first world countries, since we demanded the right to vote. Currently, 17 countries have women in their top political offices, including Liberia, Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, Costa Rica, and Slovikia. And in dozens of other countries women have been leading the way for decades. For an organization that is at the forefront of technology, innovation and change, it was a shocking statement.

    I've never been comfortable with calling women out as a special group for recognition. Celebrating the differences between men and women is only valid if you take the time to also celebrate the men. Many of the women entrepreneurs I know have resisted listing themselves as a minority owned businesses because they want to earn what they have on their own skills and not simply because they were born female.

    Once you start separating out groups, rarely are they perceived to have as much value to the whole. Changing things from the inside, not creating divisive categories, is where you can be most effective. I am not a change agent because I'm a woman, I'm a change agent because I'm a leader.

    However, I am not without empathy for those parts of the world where women are marginalized. Those women need the support, validation and education a first class conference like TED can provide. They need to be fed fuel for their fire, told, “yes, it can get better”, and have their hope for a better life and community renewed.

    We need to shine a spot light on educating the girls of Africa as a means to raise the entire continent up. We need to teach leaders that motivations for women differ from men and how to access their intrinsic drive to create lasting change. And we need new approaches to problems like domestic violence, anorexia and wage inequity that primarily affect women.

    I simply wish that there had been a great deal more forethought in how TED positioned the conference and it's purpose.

  33. July 21st, 2010 at 20:38 | #33

    Wow, Jana. You've written what's basically a brilliant post on its own merit. I'm honored that you took the time to express such potent thoughts in a comment box.

    I want to focus on one thing you said that sheds a different light on the entire debate. Women in third-world countries.

    If the TED, TEDWomen, and Paley Center websites had taken the angle of focusing on lifting up women in third-world countries and helping their voices be heard, we wouldn't be having this discussion. It would be clear that there is a need. I'm not sure TED is the right platform, based on its brand, but it would have been more acceptable. And instead of lighting a firestorm of dissent, it would have heard the same voices raised in support. I know mine would have been. The cause of oppressed and abused people is dear to my heart.

    The unfortunate thing is that TED is about “Ideas Worth Spreading.” I think we all take that to mean the sharing of the world's greatest, most innovative perspectives on a variety of topics. The fight in third-world countries for women's (and racial, sexual orientation, or age) equality is not a new idea. It's a cause. And unless TED is shifting focus from ideas to causes, there are organizations better positioned to lead that charge. I don't think that was TED's intent anyway.

    Back to TEDWomen. The cause for women's equality in modern society has been won. TED transcends those debates to focus on the ideas. It just feels like TEDWomen takes us two steps back.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Jana. They added something very valuable to the discussion.

  34. July 21st, 2010 at 21:39 | #34

    Hi Michelle — June Cohen here, from the TED Conference. I'm one of the producers of TEDWomen, and also the Executive Producer of TED Media and co-founder of TED.com. I completely respect where you're coming from on this. But I wanted to clarify a few things about our intent.

    Your first question was why we decided to launch TEDWomen. The idea for the conference was brought to us by Pat Mitchell (legendary journalist and president of the Paley Center). We loved the idea for its journalistic interest: Over the last few years, there's been a flood of fascinating data from the worlds of education, microfinance and more — showing an essential link between investing in women and girls and economic growth, public health, political stability … This story is important, and we think it deserves to be further explored on the TED stage, in a rich, varied, thoughtful way. For more about what we have planned (and why): http://conferences.ted.com/TEDWomen/program/

    So the intent behind the conference is to seek out talks about women and girls (not just by them). As with every TED, the speaker program will include men and women, and also a few women & men presenting together. The program we're envisioning is varied, surprising, diverse. Focused on ideas and innovations.

    I understand after reading your post that the launch of TEDWomen raises the question: Are we segregating women? The answer is “No.” We're not launching TEDWomen instead of balancing out our speaker line-up. This is a “Yes, and” rather than an “either/or.” We generally have 30-40% women speakers at all TED events. Though this isn't ideal, it's improving, and we're proud of that. If you look — for example — at the program for TEDGlobal (held last week in Oxford), you'll find an extraordinary group of women, from Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley to “Half the Sky” author Sheryl WuDunn to psycho-economist Sheena Iyengar to author Elif Shafak to neuro-technologist Tan Le to cognitive scientist Laurie Santos to musician/activist Annie Lennox. There were similar lineups at TED2010 and TEDIndia, and many more remarkable women booked for TED2011. We're passionately striving for a balanced program in all our conferences, and will continue to!

    So why launch TEDWomen? Because we wanted to have a long and thoughtful conversation on this topic. We've been discussing these new ideas about women at every TED, but we know there's more to say. There are so MANY rich and varied stories looking at women through this lens: as change agents, intellectual innovators, idea champions — that we can easily fill this additional 2-day conference.

    Will people view TEDWomen as a lesser event (as several here have suggested)? We don't think so, and we don't. We hold speakers at every TED event to the same high standards. Talks are considered equally for TED.com, where all talks run side-by-side. Online, people judge each TEDTalk on its own merits; they aren't qualified by the event at which they happened to be delivered.

    I really appreciate your viewpoint, Michelle, as well as that of everyone who has weighed in — either with excitement or concerns. This dialog is important in helping us focus on the conversation ahead and refining our own message. We're listening and responding, and I'm excited to continue the conversation you've started with your readers. Thanks again for your thoughtful work. You can reach us at tedwomen@ted.com or on Twitter at @tedwomen.

  35. July 21st, 2010 at 21:39 | #35

    While I do agree with the criticism of the copywriting on the TEDWomen mentioning “over the last several years,” this seems like a lot of criticism for an event that hasn't happened yet and whose website answers at least some of the questions brought up here:

    “Will male presenters be invited to TEDWomen?”

    Probably, considering the link to TEDWomen includes one picture of a male alongside the three pictures. I don't think that would be done without the realization that it sets up an expectation.

    Also, of the 9 speakers described, only three of them make direct reference to the speaker's gender being female. While the people mentioned in the other 6 descriptions could just as easily be all-women, it looks like great pains were undertaken to avoid making TEDWomen a Barbie take on TED.

    “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?”

    Why is there a dichotomy? Why would women have to choose between attending TED or TEDWomen? Why can't they do both? Or choose one over the other with no need for regret or resentment?

    As a male, I think I'd honestly be honored to speak at either TED or TEDWomen. Is there anyone here who would turn down presenting at TEDWomen on the chance that TED might call you up instead?

    That's another thing: As noted on the website, TEDWomen, obviously has the support of TED, but was independently organized via TEDx (http://www.ted.com/tedx).

    So, I don't think it's a situation where TED condescendingly decided to toss women a bone from the big table (as a lot of people seemingly have assumed); A community presumably saw the opportunity go deeper on the topic or felt that their needs or concerns weren't being met by the general TED conferences. I'm not sure why anyone would fault anyone else for taking matters into their own hands rather than waiting to lobby someone else.

    Yes, there are (and have been) many amazing women in the world making a difference in crucial areas in every field and who have even been recognized for their efforts (sometimes even by TED), but to say that's a sign that things are rosy and preclude the need for something like TEDWomen is as logically faulty as people who think that just because Obama is president that racism & hardship no longer exists.

  36. July 21st, 2010 at 21:49 | #36

    I know it's mildly off topic (and a cheap shot, to boot), but I keep wondering what Sarah Silverman thinks about this.

  37. July 21st, 2010 at 21:49 | #37

    Such brilliant comments! As you can probably deduce from the conversation we had yesterday surrounding TEDWomen, I agree that this is disheartening (at the least). The couple things that stood out to me in what people have said here are:

    1. The tarnished impression we now have of the TED brand because of this move.
    2. The blurring of lines between idea sharing and cause advocacy in TED's content; what the heck is TED about anymore?

    I'm not much of a feminist, but the separation of genders has always niggled at me. I just can't believe that any sort of segregation propagates notions of coming together or developing stronger societal equality. This move opposes the exact goal TEDWomen proposes they're trying to achieve. How is that beneficial?

    In the background, though, are the implications this move has for the TED brand. I'm still chewing on this, but I think those couple points up there highlight exactly where TED's brand issues lie. It'll be interesting to see if they respond to the backlash from this, because I sure haven't seen much positive chatter about the conference.

    And as a last point, the last question that you posed at the end of your post got me thinking. Would there need to be added promotion of women presenters at TED? I don't think so, because the emphasis is on ideas, not presenters or causes, right? Some of TED's best talks have been presented by women, and the presentations speak for themselves. TED needs to continue highlighting incredible ideas — that is the brand promise that we know and love, and that's what I hope for and expect from them, as a TED fan and advocate.

    Fantastic post, Michelle!

  38. July 21st, 2010 at 21:52 | #38

    And just now saw June Cohen's post from TEDWomen. Absolutely appreciate her joining the conversation and weighing in.

  39. July 21st, 2010 at 22:00 | #39

    I'm curious why you'd recommend the movie “Whale Rider.” Is it because it has a young female lead and young girls might be more likely to relate to than if you screened, say, “The Power of One” (which has a young male main character) for them?

    Also, why only recommend it to young girls? Couldn't young boys also benefit from watching “Whale Rider.”

    You can't argue that TEDWomen isn't needed and then suggest a viewing party for young girls of a film that is primarily about a young girl's struggle for acceptance as a leader.

  40. July 21st, 2010 at 22:37 | #40

    Ah, even I read too quickly, apparently, both from re-reading the TEDWomen site and June Cohen's, TEDW's origins aren't as a TEDx event; The site says that TEDWomen will connect to TEDx events that are organized live.

    My bad, there.

  41. Livepath
    July 21st, 2010 at 23:03 | #41

    Wow, Michelle – excellent thoughts and so well expressed. So many great comments, too.

    I'm a pretty big TED fan, and this move did diminish the brand in my eyes, as well – even after reading their repsponse. It's not something I would attend (agreement with @MegFowler) myself… although I'm sure I'd devour a few talks over lunch on my computer.

    While TED is 501c3…on the surface, looks like an attempt to expand and monetize. TEDW,TEDX TEDActive and other “branchings”. The strategist in me says hmmm…. With membership fees of $2000 – $10,000… PLUS individual conference fees of $2200 and up (and that doesn't include lodging)… this is a great way to exponentially grow membership and conference revenue by producing more conferences. Add sponsorships (I don't know if they do paid sponsorships or not… or if you have to pay to contribute to the infamous TED gift bag… ) and smell the money. Frankly, I wouldn't be shocked if we soon see a TEDSHOP – an online, sustainable store full of innovative products worth buying. The trick for TED will be not oversaturating people with hype.

    I'm sure it's not that straight forward — or maybe it is. I'm sure there are loftier goals here. In the end, we really don't have to like it. The brand's success will ultimately lie in TED's ability to CONTINUE to promote and support innovation and ideas worth spreading. Whether or not the revenue will ultimately be used for the “greater good” and proving that in a believable way is up to TED… but ultimately — they can do what they want with it.

    Perhaps I'm just a cynic. Nevertheless, I'm with you on deeper inclusion and deeper thought. I was the little girl following the boys on the exploration into the dumpster and heck –> there were times where I even went first.

  42. July 21st, 2010 at 23:07 | #42

    Michelle, I truly appreciate your blog and your stance. And Jana, as I was reading your post I could not help thinking over and again about the conversation I recently live tweeted form the Biennial of the Americas Roundtable, on women. An entire conversation, and one of the most well attended of the series, discussing women in the western hemisphere. Right here on our continent women are still bearing the brunt of abuse, unemployment, undereducation and malnutrition. As I tweeted I could not help thinking of a conversation with a Kurdish man I work with on a non-profit, utilizing women to spread a culture of life in war torn regions and regions where gang violence and an overall culture of death prevails. He said to me, rather smugly, “At least in Kurdistan when a woman works she gets the exact same pay as a man in the same position.” We have a LONG way to go, I believe, in having our voices heard right here at home. I agree, perhaps the wording is a little 1975…but lets get the conversation going. We are heard at Ted conferences, we are heard all over at Tedx conferences, lets talk at the TedWomen table as well and enjoy conversation that will actually get ideas worth spreading viral. When you share an idea with a woman you have the real possibility of seeing that idea get put into action.

  43. Amy
    July 21st, 2010 at 23:26 | #43

    I am so glad that June Cohen responded to clear things up a little bit. When I heard the announcement, I was a bit confused about what TED was trying to achieve by holding a TEDWoman conference and I'm happy to hear that it is about addressing the reality and stories of women across varying contexts – not about a separate conference for women speakers. Unlike some of the commentators here, I do think that there is still a lot to address and it's not just about the “first world” educating the developing countries as someone mentioned.

    I think it's important to point out that many of the women commenting here are privileged. The fact that playing baseball, football and riding horses qualifies as rough and tumble only demonstrates that we’re coming from a pretty okay place (and I include myself in this category). Whether you call yourself feminist or not, there is data to support that there are still societal issues specific to women that can't just be overcome by deciding you're going to 'play with the boys': statistically women still don't earn as much as men for doing the same job, 1 in 6 women (compared to 1 and 33 men) are victims of sexual assault each year and 45,000–50,000 women and children are trafficked annually to the United States – just for starters.

    “Celebrating the differences between men and women is only valid if you take the time to also celebrate the men.” I'm sorry, but men have been very good at celebrating and promoting one another for decades – men's only clubs, the disparity between male CEOs and high level executives compared to women in similar positions *despite* that indeed, women are beginning to outnumber men in secondary education. This isn’t about male bashing – men are as much the products of a sexist system as women are.

    Like I said, I'm a little bit conflicted about the TEDWomen event but it worries me that so many women still feel the need to preface their comments with statements like “I played with the boys” as though that makes them more qualified to respond to this topic. I played with boys and girls growing up in the middle of the Canadian Prairies, which is arguably every bit as 'rough and tumble' as Texas, and I recognize that I was lucky that I was given a choice. I hope TEDWomen will shed light on the stories of other women who might not have been as privileged as I was so that we can really begin to address gender disparity in a meaningful way.

  44. Citygirlhardware
    July 21st, 2010 at 23:41 | #44

    Found you through a link on Twitter — great article!

    As someone who did *not* grow up “in a time when we were encouraged to be anything we wanted,” I can only add that things are better then they used to be. More accurately, they *were* better than they used to be.

    IMO the recession has reactivated the dog-eat-dogginess of the business world and segregating women or any other group is a step toward disenfranchisement.

    Good luck with your project!

  45. July 22nd, 2010 at 11:03 | #45

    Michelle, thank you for your pitch-perfect post on the announcement and marketing of TEDWomen. Your humor at the opening of the piece – and your praise for (and admitted addiction to) TED – is a wonderful preface for rightly taking them to task on the issues you highlight. Ultimately, their Web copy is obtuse. The text you quote (in the post and comments) fuels your point – and your reaction is honest and obviously shared by many. The line “Revealing the ideas of women and girls worldwide” also reinforces this “oh, let's see what women have to say” angle – the “belittling” of your title.

    June Cohen does a great job trying to clear things up. She zeros in on the “essential link between investing in women and girls and economic growth, public health, political stability.” This point – and Jana Knapp's well-articulated point about where women are marginalized – are unfortunately blurred by the larger, watered-down lede copy on the Web site.

    Brand Forward readers (a group of men and women who happen to devour TED talks) are the perfect target audience for this new TED. So if the big idea wasn't clear, then something is clearly wrong with the presentation.

  46. July 22nd, 2010 at 12:21 | #46

    Hi Dafna, Thanks for the response. I appreciate your positive outlook on the opportunities for conversation at a new table. You're right, if the table is going to exist we should enjoy the conversation. I'm sure anyone who loves TED will find value in TEDWomen, regardless of our opinions on why it exists, or if it's necessary in light of TED. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  47. July 22nd, 2010 at 13:45 | #47

    Wow. And someone asked me at work the other day if I thought the need to talk about 'women' was passe. I'll be sending them to this terrific article and comment section.

    If the TEDWomen is really about creating a conversation across all views/groups about women's issues today, then I applaud the effort. As long as rape, servitude and poverty still exist (in this country too!), then we need to make sure that education continues.

    It's only when such forums become “women presenting to women” that I would ask – if you substitued any other group for “women”, would it still be acceptable to do create this forum?

  48. July 22nd, 2010 at 14:11 | #48

    June, I just want to thank you for taking the time to respond. It was such a thoughtful response. It means a lot to me and I know it's appreciated by everyone who has put so much passion into their comments on the topic.

    Your response helps us understand that the intent of TED was not to exclude or segregate women. I think most of us agree that TED wasn't intentionally doing that, but without clarity on the website, communicating that it's a topic-driven event (as opposed to a sister event), we couldn't help but get that impression. It's encouraging to hear that TED is still refining its TEDWomen message. It's a great opportunity to calm the waters and refocus the content to reflect “a conversation about investing in women” vs. a conference designed to include more women speakers who don't have strong enough ideas or content appeal to get on a TED stage. On the website it's coming across as talented women “getting their turn” to talk, and not about the topic of investing in women and girls. Maybe more focus and content on why TED has started developing topical events, and more inclusion of male speakers, would also quell some of the reactions.

    As I've mentioned, I'd personally prefer to see the TED brand stay strong and singular, but topical events make sense as a compromise when there are too many great ideas and not enough days and space to include them all in one conference. Where we run into the sensitive gender equality debate is when TED becomes a platform for celebrating or highlighting a gender as opposed to highlighting ideas. I still wish TED could stay TED without having to go topical, but I'm sure there are behind-the-scenes issues that are driving decisions, and as both a fan and marketing strategist I have to respect that.

    As a co-founder of TED and a producer of TEDWomen it must be hard to read so many comments criticizing the event. But there is beauty in it. TED has created such a strong, powerful, motivational brand that its supporters are the first to call to task anything that compromises it. Having such a dedicated, passionate community is an incredible accomplishment. And knowing your evangelists are watching out for the TED brand must be priceless.

    Your graciousness and willingness to communicate your thoughts in an open forum is inspiring. I really appreciate your contribution to the conversation.

  49. July 22nd, 2010 at 16:11 | #49

    Jose, Thanks for the response. I'd like to clarify a few things you bring up. First, until late yesterday there were no photos of men on the TEDWomen home page. There were originally five images and they were all women. When researching stories, I take screen shots of items I want to keep filed for reference. I have one of the front page from yesterday that I can share if you'd like.

    At the time I wrote the post, the site included all images of women and the program list included only women (or made no gender reference). The description of the event did not include a topical focus, but more of a “highlighting” of women speakers and traditionally female issues and causes, without a focus on the ideas. I know that based on your Twitter comments you feel that some of us are ruled by knee-jerk reactions and don't read thoroughly, but you might want to consider that we do read thoroughly and are just looking deeply into the context, or we simply see things differently.

    You say that women still don't have equality despite making a difference in the world, and you cite a need for TEDWomen in response to that. What the rest of us are saying is that if TED wants to support women and continue pushing toward equality and the spreading of our ideas, don't create a separate venue, because it belittles us.

    Is celebrating women a good thing? Yes. Is TED the venue for it? Unless the focus is on the idea and not the gender of the person sharing it, I would say no. That was my purpose in writing this post, to communicate that ideas should not be attached to gender or segregated. The TEDWomen event hasn't happened yet, but I don't think anyone should be held to silence when they see something in opposition to their principles or that they feel will cause damage to a brand they love. The women have spoken. If the ideas are powerful and worth spreading, they shouldn't be moved off the TED stage. They belong front and center, not in an auxiliary event.

    I really appreciate your bold response. I'm glad you took the time to weigh in on the subject with courage.

  50. July 22nd, 2010 at 16:18 | #50

    Thank you, Teresa! I'm so glad you enjoyed it, particularly since it was our interaction on Twitter that first inspired this post.

    Your comment makes some great points, and one of the most important parts of the debate… that the emphasis should be on ideas, not on women. It's so encouraging to see so many other women who love the TED brand and have such a passion for ideas that we'd rather preserve the sanctity of TED than accept a gratuitous (sorry, I know that's a little bit stronger of a word than I'd prefer to use) handout. That's an incredible testament to TED, don't you think?

    Thanks again for your comments and inspiration.

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