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.


Maddie Grant July 29, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Awesome, awesome, awesome. Thanks for a great summary of exactly why this whole TEDWomen sticks in our craw.

Maren July 30, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Bravo, CV! And thank you! I’m sharing this one.

Victoria Pynchon July 31, 2010 at 7:02 pm

All good points. And yet I, veteran of the Second Wave women’s movement long for a women’s TED conference. Even if “regular” TED was 50% women, we’d still need a women’s TED to address the challenges that are uniquely female in the 21st century and how to simply take rather than ask for the political and economic power that is ours. It might be dispiriting but it’s true that many women are not interested in “women’s issues,” often because they’re not a priority at this precise moment, I.e., there was a time when learning how to cross-examine a witness on the stand was more important to me than anything else and I didn’t care what the gender of my mentor or teacher was. We desperately need a TED conference devoted to women’s issues so that those of us working on them right now can come together to create the unimaginable. TEDWoman doesn’t diminish the attempt for TED to be more inclusive. It’s not a zero sum game.

cv harquail August 1, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Hi Victoria -
It sounds like what you’re in favor of is a feminist TEDWomen– about taking for rather than asking for x. It’s unfortunate that the TEDWoman approach is not feminist at all– it’s an outside group deciding what is “women-centered” or not, and without any political understanding of or respect for any distinction between ‘women-centered’ and feminist/women’s issues. It is a conference without a liberatory intent. At best, it could be described as paternalistic, at worst is just another patriarchal effort to placate the ladies.
If the conference had been initated by women with a liberatory intent, then it would have met one of the two possible criteria for being intellectually and politically legitimate. That’s not what TEDWomen was conceived to be.
I agree with you– it would be great if there were a TEDWomen conference devoted to women’s issues (by definition, political).
TEDWomen as designed will probably be an interesting conference, but at the same time it’s a big missed opportunity.

Victoria Pynchon August 1, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Clearly, I need to learn more about TEDWomen and will do so soon. Thanks for the clarification.

June Cohen August 2, 2010 at 11:28 am

A few followups here…. First, on the numbers: The percent of women speakers varies from conference to conference, but you can get the sense by looking at this summer’s TEDGlobal (30% women speakers) and TED2009 (38% women speakers). I appreciate your call for transparency, and confirm that all of our speaker programs are publicly available. TEDGlobal is here: TED2009 is here:

I’d encourage you to compare these numbers against other comparable conferences, and I think you’ll find that TED ranks quite favorably. This is a result of the concerted attention we pay to recruiting women speakers across ALL our events. We will continue of course, to do so.

It’s also worth noting that most of TED’s leadership is female; TED’s curator Chris Anderson has placed women in most of the organization’s leadership roles (We also have a few excellent men). So I have to respectfully object to your characterization of TEDWomen (on your other website) as a “patriarchal effort to placate the ladies.” Women planned this event, wrote the copy for it, and will host it. You mentioned above that TEDWomen is run by an “outside group.” I’m not sure what you mean by “outside” (outside what?), but I want to clarify for you and your readers that TEDWomen is every bit a TED project, run by TED’s leadership, along with Pat Mitchell of The Paley Center for Media, an expert on many of the topics the conference will address.

Finally, I’d like to emphasize that we’ve read with interest all the responses to TEDWomen. They have actually been overwhelmingly positive. (We’ve received hundreds of speaker recommendations, emails expressing support, etc.) But we find we learn the most when we engage with those who disagree and question our direction. I appreciate the passion, and thank you for the insight.

cv harquail August 2, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Hi June,

Thank you for continuing the conversation here…

With regard to the numbers, the important point is to see a (statistically) significant change in trends, both general (ratio women:men) and specific (e.g., ratio of women scientists: male scientists, artists:artists, etc, along with an analysis of achievement of intermediate goals. We could argue whether 19 of 55 presentations means that women were 36% or 38% of TED2009– and how to count the presentations by groups, or whether one conference with 38% percent speakers indicates a change in the overall selection process — but the real issue is whether TED has a plan and whether than plan is sensible, and what values are guiding that. That kind of thing hasn’t been part of the TEDWomen announcement. If you all were to share your big picture on what TED’s doing re gender balancing, where you’re going, and why, that might have answered many questions that TEDWomen’s announcement raises.

It would be useful to compare TED to similar conferences (like, Davos? Who is your competitive set?). If you think this is an important comparison, do you have some data to share (and does TED track that data)? Is so, that kind of information would help critics like me understand the whole of TED’s efforts to address sexism in its programming. I’m not suggesting that TED is better or worse than some other conferences. While it’s nice to be ‘less sexist’ relative to Davos is that really TED’s goal?

TED sets itself apart from other international conferences, and should be evaluated against its own mission. So, the issue would be whether and how TED understands its role as a curator of a conversation about ideas, and how gender imbalance in its own presentation of the world of ideas should be addressed by TED. How does TED see its role in the conversation about ideas? Does TED think ideas and ideators are gender-neutral? Gender-blind? Gender-inclusive? Gender-irrelevant? We don’t know what TED’s position is… and we’re still waiting to hear.

It’s great to hear that TED has many women in leadership roles. It would certainly be worse to think that few/no women were part of the conversation. … The percentage of women in an organization’s leadership roles doesn’t make an organization more feminist, or less sexist, although it is promising.

TED isn’t a women’s organization, or a feminist organization, though, and this is important. When I used the phrase “outside” I was trying to capture the idea that TED isn’t a “women’s” organization, nor a “feminist” organization. I wanted to distinguish between an organization of women and / or for women, with a model where women as a group determined what was an effective strategy for women. It is a very subtle and important distinction, between an organization that has some women leaders and an organization that is “about” women’s issues as women determine them, or an organization that has as its agenda working in partnership with women to move towards equality. Maybe TED has this in its values or as part of its mission, and if I missed it and thus characterized your organization’s approach, I apologize.

Another subtle distinction here, and one that ties to a characterization of the effort as possibly patriarchical — and to be fair, I said this was ‘worst case’ interpretation of the effort — is the distinction between women being the ‘objects’ for whom or about whom someone else is making the decisions, and women being the agents and authors of their/our own advocacy. If the conference was the outcome of a conversation among women in power at TED to address sexism within / at TED, that would be different and perhaps avoid the suggestion of paternalism. But that’s now how it was presented… or how you’re explaining it. Again, if there is more to that story, it would be worth you all sharing it.

There really is so much more to this conversation– and maybe there is more to the TEDWomen story. I would like to hear how and why this strategy was chosen, what options you considered, how it fits in an overall strategy for inclusiveness, and on. Maybe I am asking too much to expect TED to be politically aware and to see the situation as something more than getting more women on the podium. I believe that I am expecting a comprehensive understanding of this issues precisely because TED claims to be about a world of ideas— thus, TED as an organization should be applying the world of what we already know about gender discrimination, sexism, and creating inclusive organizations. We’ve already had this conversation in the world of ideas, in the world of organizational change and in the world all around us. So to see so many of these ideas and strategies absent from TED’s conversation about itself — continues to be surprising.

I also understand that you are in a tough position– you all are doing what you think is right, and getting criticized for not being enlightened enough to anticipate and leapfrog over these issues from the start. We do hold TED to a higher standard — because you as an organization have set this standard for yourselves. And, continuing the conversation, and the program adjustment, and the expansion of your explanations, and the big picture setting for TEDWomen as a tactic within a potentially more comprehensive change– all of this is good.

Victoria Pynchon August 2, 2010 at 11:33 am

Sorry to be uninformed and unable to quickly access this information, but could you explain the following:

Who are the members of the “outside group deciding what is “women-centered” or not”

Why do we believe they have no political understanding of or respect for any distinction between ‘women-centered’ and feminist/women’s issues.

Intersting – I’ve never heard the term “liberatory intent” before but I get it (though “liberation” for some reason always suggests to me assistance from others – as in, “we’ve liberated you from your fascist oppressors.”). \

What is it about Women’sTED that is paternalistic or patriarchal.

Was the conference initiated by men? rather than women? Or was it initiated by men and women without a “liberatory intent? And how do we know their intent?

I’m not certain I know what “intellectually legitimate” means. By “politically legitimate,” I take you to be referring to the “liberatory intent” piece of this.

How do we know what TEDWomen “was conceived to be”?

I ask these questions from a negotiator’s point of view, i.e., with an eye toward taking what exists and opening up a dialogue (or multilogue) with the stakeholders to move the conference more in the direction you’d like to see it go or, failing that, holding a CounterTEDWomen (based on the old “teach-in” model that could be held simultaneously in the same city.

cv harquail August 2, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Hi Victoria-

I’m hoping that between June’s comment and my reply (both of which happened as you were commenting, I think) covers most of the questions you’ve raised. My views about what TED did or didn’t do/mean etc. come from the public announcements they’ve shared initially and in some online conversations. if it isn’t public, I’m not using it… so there is obviously more to the story that hasn’t been told.

I have been thinking a lot about what I wish TED had done… although my first reaction to the announcement text itself (which was what I saw first) was more like whaaaat? , if someone had told me “Hey, TED’s having a conference about women’s issues” I’d have been more positively inclined. To me, there are few situations where separating women out without an explicitly feminist / women’s issues agenda would seem kosher. But that’s me, I have a feminist, inclusive agenda.

My dream TED conference about women-centered ideas would be a conference about the global feminist conversation. To me, that’s a “big idea”. I really like your idea of setting up the multilogue with TED and women in the community of ideas who do and don’t feel like the TEDWomen idea gets us further. We are kindof/sortof working on that in this online conversation– but obviously this has too many limitations to really make or be the change we seek.

Victoria Pynchon August 2, 2010 at 8:57 pm

We should talk . . . . I think there’s value in this for more than just the women contributing to the comments to this post. I seriously mean — let’s DO something so that we do both/all instead of either/or.

Last question: when you say feminist/inclusive do you mean inclusive of feminists? or do you mean feminists being inclusive of others & if so who?

But genuinely, difficult to have a conversation as meaningful, dimensional and textured as this in blog post comments.

All best,


cv harquail August 2, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Hi Vicki-
I’m going to think on your idea about what a both/all might be…
In the meantime, clarifying– I use the “feminist/inclusive” because I want to flag to other feminists and diversity folks that my view of feminism incorporates issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, etc. My ‘brand’ of feminism is not just about “women” — or implicitly about white hetero cisgendered Anglo fully abled women like myself. It’s about using a feminist lens as a lever to equal the playing field for everyone, regardless of their ‘category’. So, in the TEDWomen situation, I want to see a TEDWomen that looks at the ideas of more than white hetero privileged women and embraces the ideas of any & every woman. Tmi, but there it is. cv

Henrietta September 27, 2011 at 11:44 am

Is that really all there is to it because that’d be flabbregasitng.

Victoria Pynchon August 4, 2010 at 11:15 am


Interesting; these are the IDENTICAL issues that consumed us at the “radical feminist” center for women’s studies and services in San Diego circa 1974-75.

Clearly, I haven’t kept up because I don’t know what cisgendered means.

(btw, this is not tmi; this is the heart of the continuation of one of the most important conversations women can have)

The whole “lens” thing is particular to the radical feminist (as opposed to the then-NOW get-a-bigger-piece-of-the-white-man’s-pie) agenda and it’s also leftist politics back in the day when there was still a left left in America.

Down the road a little . . . . I believe in what you’re saying. I also believe that what you’re saying isn’t sufficiently inclusive of women who don’t share that view. It was incredibly divisive in the 70′s and we lost a lot of women to the movement. I’m not saying we should abandon that lens – Lord knows its how I mostly see the world myself. But I also believe that it’s important for me to see through the many lenses of others; lenses that often appear to be completely contrary to mine.

Because, as the poet Galway Kinnell wrote, “if you express your own personal experience deeply enough, your voice becomes simply that of another creature on the planet speaking.”

Many lenses, many frames.

cv harquail August 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Hi Victoria-

Yes, cisgendered is a new-ish one. The lingo advances with the consciousness …

I’m not sure I understand your comment about not being ‘sufficiently inclusive of women who don’t share my/the same view’ — who am I leaving out?

Victoria Pynchon August 7, 2010 at 6:25 pm

I probably mis-read — you say “I want to see a TEDWomen that looks at the ideas of more than white hetero privileged women and embraces the ideas of any & every woman.” Yes, that’s inclusive of everyone. So if TEDWomen is excluding the views of feminists, then there should be a call for them to be included, yes?

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