Want More Women on Tech & TED Panels? Reject Meritocracy and Embrace Curation

by cv harquail on October 27, 2010

Are there enough women¹ being included in public lineups of remarkable business people?

Are enough women being selected for conference panels on Technology & Entrepreneurship, for the roster of the annual TED conferences, or even for the Silicon Alley Daily’s 100 Coolest New York Tech people?

No. There are not enough² women being chosen for these prime lineups and speaking gigs.

The under-representation of women on these panels doesn’t seem right. This under-representation excludes women from the the benefits of these spotlights. And the paucity of women panelists reinforces stereotypes that too few women are smart enough or accomplished enough to have valuable views to share. The absence of women even prevents many great ideas, ideas promoted by women, from being shared with audiences that would find them interesting and useful.

We want to get more women onto Tech panels and TED lineups, and to do this we have to dispense with the myth that these lineups are created though meritocracy.



Meritocracy is a selection process where people & their ideas are advanced on the basis of their ability, performance, achievement, or merit. In a process that is meritocratic, the cream rises to the top, just like in the cappuccino on the left.

In a meritocratic process, potential selections are evaluated against a set of “objective”, fixed standards. Those who meet these standards are “qualified”, and they advance. Those who do not meet these standards are “not qualified” and they do not advance.

When a panel or lineup of speakers is selected through meritocracy, all of the panelists have surpassed the standards, met the qualification criteria, and thus earned a place on the panel. Those who are not selected are understood to be below the standard, to be unqualified, and to be unworthy of a place.

In a meritocratic process, those selected are selected because -and only because- they meet the standardized criteria.

Meritocracy: Selecting all, or selecting at random

When meritocracy is the process being used, a meritocratic panel, conference, “best of” list, or other group includes any person who meets the criteria for selection. If the program or panel has fewer spaces than qualified speakers, and the subset of speakers is chosen at random from the group of qualified people, this is a meritocracy.


However, any program, panel, or exhibit that has fewer spaces than qualified speakers, where the speakers are chosen any other way than at random, is decidedly not a meritocracy. It is a curation.


Curation is a selection process where people, ideas and things are advanced on the basis of meeting both a merit standard and a pedagogical/ educational standard. Curation creates a subgroup of speakers and ideas that together make a point. The composition of the subgroup is not random, it is meaningful.

Curators are trying to make a point, to tell a story, to demonstrate a set of relationships, and to make a statement.

Curators identify a goal that they want the panel, conference, or list to fulfill. Curators establish selection criteria that go beyond merit, and they apply this criteria as they select from the pool of qualified speakers the smaller set of speakers that help their panel, their conference, and their “best of” list make a point.

Curators actively exercise their judgment to create an end product, an intentional sum of the parts. As Maria Popova, noted curator of BrainPickings, explains in this interview at NeboBlog:

The art of curation isn’t about the individual pieces of content, but about how these pieces fit together, what story they tell by being placed next to each other, and what statement the context they create makes about culture and the world at large.

Meritocracy  is a mechanical selection process. Curation is an artistic, pedagogical, judgment process.

The problem with the TED Lineup and Tech Panel conversations is that these selections claim to be meritocracies, when in fact they are curations.

Whether the people making the selection see it or not, the people choosing these panels are applying criteria that goes beyond simple merit. When you have an assortment of men and women who are qualified to be on panels, to speak on stage, to share their “Ideas worth sharing”, but you turn out panels that routinely feature white men in positions of power (see VY’s comment, below) — lots of them– and rarely include women of color or white women, or men of color, you are likely using curation criteria that favors white men.

The criteria that leads TED curators and Tech Conference organizers to put mostly white men on stage can reflect outright gender bias (e.g., we prefer men, we think men are smarter) or indirect gender bias (e.g., theories that women promote are less interesting than the ones men promote), but in the end, it’s gender bias. It is criteria that goes beyond merit, and reflects the curators’ judgments.

Why Rejecting Meritocracy Matters

When you presume that meritocracy is the desired process, you “change the ratio” using tactics that increase the number of women in the pool of potential speakers so that, in a random selection process, women are as likely as men to be selected.

These tactics for creating gender balance on a panel using meritocracy include:

Notice that none of these steps asks us to consider the criteria we are using to select the actual speakers from the pool of qualified speakers.

It’s important to reject meritocracy as the central principle for selecting speakers and lineups, because the actions that gender balance a meritocracy won’t get more women on panels. We already have a lot of women who are qualified, and a lot of women who are available, to be on these panels and appear in these lineups. Increasing the number of qualified women does little to change the selection of panels when the underlying curation criteria remains biased (intentionally or not) towards men.

We have to accept that panel selection is never about “merit”. Panel selection is always about creating a group, program, or event that intentionally makes a point. It is always a process of curation.


Why Embracing Curation Matters

We need to embrace the idea that curation is the actual process currently being used. And, we need to embrace the idea that curation is a desirable and appropriate process that we should use more consciously. Only by embracing the process of curation can we consciously examine the real goals behind these panels, conferences and lists, and evaluate whether we are using the right criteria to judge who is selected and who is not.

Embracing curation means that we need to pay attention to the actual reasons why we are creating the panels, the conferences, and the “best of” lists in the first place.

When we embrace the reality that speaker lineups are created by curation, we address the absence of women from conference stages by:

  1. Clarifying the point we want to make, the story we want to tell, and the meaning we want to create with the panel, conference or list,
  2. Establishing the curatorial criteria that will guide our judgment as we craft a subgroup that will raise or make our point,
  3. Confirming that we are not trying to make a point about gendered preferences,
  4. Identifying the set of men and women who meet the baseline objective criteria of being ‘qualified’ and
  5. Selecting from among this set the subset of women and men whose talks will also meet our curatorial criteria.

To be sure…

… there are ways to challenge the claim that curation, not meritocracy, is the appropriate selection process. You can start by trying to prove that meritocracy is working and that women are underrepresented because, in fact, there are not any ‘qualified women’ with ideas worth sharing or with experience worth drawing upon. With resources like GeekSpeaker, #ChangeTheRatio, Women Who Tech, and the Field Guide to the Female Founders, Influencers & Deal Makers, that’s a pretty hard thing to prove in the tech space specifically, but also more broadly.

You could also try arguing that we use meritocracy to select these panels because we rank the potential candidates and take only the top 4, or the top 33, or the top 100. But, you know that ‘ranking’ is rarely scientific and/or completely merit based. At a certain level (say, among the top 100 people with interesting ideas), the difference between a person ranked #8 and a person ranked #10 is so minimal as to be insignificant, or so subjective that it’s a matter of taste. Think about it, is the Sexiest Man Alive in 2009 really Johnny Depp? Or is it Robert Pattinson?

Recommending action steps that treat the under-representation of women as a problem related to meritocracy is misguided. Better we should acknowledge that we curate these lists, panels and conferences to make a point.

Then we should ask ourselves quite clearly, what is the point we are trying to make?

¹ The issue of representation on panels and TED is not exclusive to women (women of color and white women). Men of color are also under-represented, and the arguments above apply to the under-representation of men of color.  I’m focusing on women in this post.

2 What is “enough” or “underrepresented”? If the population of the USA is 51% female, and assuming that the ratio of women with good ideas to men with good ideas in anywhere between 1:1 and 1: 2, “enough” would be anything from 50% to 33% of the speakers in the lineup. Consider that at 33%, ‘enough’ remains a qualified term.

See also:
Too Few Women in Tech: There’s More Than You Think

where the plain – topped cappuccino represents meritocracy and the one with the explicit design represents curation:
Modena Cappucino from eblaser
Cappucino Art from kerryj.com
Barista Fair Trade Coffee, Götgatan…
from vargklo


Virginia Yonkers October 28, 2010 at 8:22 am

Likewise, the entire issue of “peer reviewed” journals are not really peer reviewed, but rather the choice of those who have a certain agenda. As my work is interdisciplinary (as yours is), a person on a Marketing journal is not my “peer” per se as I have different work, life, and research experiences than they do. If a journal is edited, it is much easier to know what the journal’s bias was the basis of “rejection” or “acceptance” rather than having to be told that your “peers” don’t accept your work (that somehow you are lacking your expertise).

I wonder what would happen if conferences, journals, speakers bureaus, were to create pools and then the programs were chosen by lottery? I think there would be a much greater exchange of new ideas.

One comment I would make about the majority of speakers being “white male.” Not all white males have access to the mainstream power structure. And in fact, I know of many who are just as excluded because they don’t fit the stereo type of “white male.” I think it would be more useful to use the label “white powerful male” or “white male in a position of power.” I find that the label of “white male” makes it easier for those in a position of power to maintain that power by excluding the many white males that might have different experiences (i.e. a white male who has grown up in poverty, a white male who may not be involved in sports, a white male who may not be academically successful, a passive white male). These white males feel the same position of powerlessness as men of color or women.

cv harquail October 28, 2010 at 8:54 am

Hi Virginia-

Thanks so much for your comment…. I appreciate your point that not all “white males” are privileged white males… and assuming that they are helps maintain status barriers among men, so I’ll add that, above.

I could go on forever about the abuses of the gate-keeping function of journal reviewers — I think that getting reviewers to disclose their biases and their personal connections to topics of papers they review helps a little bit, at least to keep us aware that biases are active in the review process.

The most important recommendation is for us to ‘get clear’ about the biases we have… conference organizers need to recognize how their biases influence their perceptions of ‘better’, especially where these biases are irrelevant to the focus of the conference. That’s why I want the folks at TED to examine their own self-construals as ‘curators’, because I think that their process is flawed b/c they aren’t transparent with themselves.

Thanks so much for sharing with us.

Susan Macaulay March 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Wow CV. This is an AWESOME post, and SO edifying! Pity I only just found it now after clicking on one of Gloria’s links 🙁

I will go back and insert it into my relevant existing links lists and include it in future ones as well.

I had never thought about the selection process in such a systematic and detailed way.

Honestly, this is one of the best posts of its kind that I’ve ever read – it would make a superb TED talk! LOL &:P

Thanks so much for the information and the user-friendly explanation.


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