Followup on the TEDWomen Conversation

by cv harquail on July 29, 2010

June Cohen, one of the producers of TEDWomen, kindly replied to my piece over at The Huffington Post. I discovered that I couldn’t fit my entire response– plus the important hyperlinks — to the HuffPo Space, so for those who are interested, our exchange follows, below.

From June Cohen:

Hi CV — June Cohen here, from TED. I’m one of the producers of TEDWomen, and Exec. Producer of TED Media. I want to clarify a few things about our intent, and respectfully clarify a statistic you cited.

First the stats: You wrote that only 17% of TED speakers are women; this is misleading. It’s true that 17% of speakers on are women; however, those talks cover TED’s full 27year archive, dating back to the 80s, when the conference was tech-oriented and yes, male-dominated. TED is a different organization today. For the past several years, we’ve had ~30-40% women speakers at each TED event. This isn’t ideal, but it’s respectable & improving.

You state here that TED is marginalizing women, and I want to be clear: We didn’t launch TEDWomen to segregate women attendees or speakers, nor did we launch it as an alternative to a balanced speaker lineup at other events (which was already a priority for us). This is an enthusiastic “yes/and” not an “either/or.”

We launched TEDWomen to take a deep dive into a subject we find fascinating, timely and important. A slew of new data shows women are a vital link to economic growth, public health, political stability. There are many stories looking at women through this lens — as change agents — and we’re looking forward to exploring them in depth.

A longer comment here:

Happy to continue the conversation. Email us at Twitter: @tedwomen

From CV Harquail

June, thanks so much for commenting here and for sharing the organization’s views. It means a lot to me and to HuffPo readers to have you join the conversation here in and elsewhere online. The larger opportunity is for TED as an organization and for TED’s larger community to continue a learning-oriented conversation about sexism and marginalization in the world of ideas.

What do the data and data analysis show?

It would be helpful if TED could post publically the data on the gender distribution of its speaker lineup. I came up with the 17% number by counting women’s names/pictures and men’s names/pictures in the speaker line-ups. Others have arrived at similar percentages of 17 to 30 percent, depending on what they counted. I have not seen anyone quote a percentage higher than 32%, so to suggest 40% seems generous. Maybe TED is counting women that the rest of us haven’t actually seen, and maybe our counts are lower as a result. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement … if in the latest TEDGlobal conference, the ratio was 17 to 58.

Still, the percentage of women is an empirical question that can be answered concretely with data. You already have some of this data available on the TED blog) so adding columns for gender and category wouldn’t be that hard. An official data display of the distribution of speakers over conferences and categories might show what percentage of speakers overall have been women, and how those numbers are (or are not) increasing in a statistically significant way. A data display like that might also uncover other trends, for example, that when women are on the stage they are more likely to be in some categories (e.g., “Play”) and nearly absent in others (e.g., “Breakthrough” and “Boldness”).

An analysis like this would not only provide accurate data for those who care to comment, but also would provide the TED community with the beginnings of a diagnosis of the systemic exclusion and selective inclusion of women

Whether TEDWomen really addresses sexism.

Let’s consider, too, whether TED really understands the issue of sexism and the root of our concerns about TEDWomen. I want to believe that TEDWomen is a politically and intellectually sophisticated effort to address sexism, and that the TED organization ‘gets it’. And, I want to believe that TED has accurately documented, diagnosed and begun to address sexism for real, not only on the podium but also behind the scenes and in the organization’s processes.

The official announcements of TEDWomen, and your later explanations of the conference would suggest that this is not the case. First, the text of the announcement is condescending. It is condescending to say that women’s issues and ideas have only recently become interesting. It is condescending to describe perceptions of the “importance of women globally” as being “conventional wisdom” rather than to understand that “conventional wisdom” is actually systematic discrimination in the world of ideas. Others have pointed this out to TED, so I won’t go into it here in any more detail.

The official response by TED to criticism of its decision has dug it a deeper hole. You’ve confirmed the still-marginal position of women in TED’s world of ideas, by explaining that TEDWomen is “the next in line” of a series of “niche” conferences. Women as a population, women as thinkers, ideas that address issues pertinent to women (and men) – these are not “niche” ideas. We’re talking about 51% of the world’s population here, not a subset of consumers.

Finally, when you described the conference’s appeal to Ryan Brown over at Salon, you said,

“Yes, it won’t appeal to everyone, but that is part of our point. When you try to appeal to everyone, we find you don’t appeal to anyone at all.”

What that statement does is compare the appeal of a TED conference that would incorporate women’s ideas to a TED conference about predominantly men’s ideas—and diminishes the women’s ideas as being less appealing. Less appealing to whom?, I would ask.

I do appreciate that TED’s official responses are showing a change in how the organization is positioning the TEDWomen conference. I hope that the change in copy also reflects a change in understanding.

What I and others would like to see from TED is more transparency in the organization’s self-analysis, and more specificity in your strategies for addressing what seem to be deeply embedded sexist assumptions about whose ideas and which ideas matter, and to whom. Maybe TED is already working on this, maybe not. Certainly, the ongoing evolution of how you all are presenting TEDWomen on TED’s own site and in other online line forums is encouraging. You are out here engaging in the conversations, and that’s not only useful but also admirable. Organizations with less commitment to ideas would have stopped trying to understand, if they’d ever even started.

In diversity work we distinguish between intention and outcomes. TEDWomen may have been intended to celebrate women’s ideas, but the outcome is that TED as an organization has offended people with simplistic thinking about discrimination and how to resolve it. Actions with good intentions that reinforce discrimination are still reinforcing discrimination.

I know you don’t think that TEDWomen is marginalizing women and women’s ideas. But frankly, the response to the conference is telling you and the TED organization otherwise. It is telling you that women feel marginalized not only by the creation of TEDWomen but also by the explanations provided for it. Not to mention, the silence from the organization about anything related to a deeper, more committed effort to address gender discrimination.