Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How @TEDMED achieved 51 percent women speakers in 2014

Assefi hosting a session at TEDMED 2014
(Editor's note: TEDMED director of stage content Nassim Assefi is a doctor, novelist, civic activist, TED Fellow and active member of the TED community. An internist specializing in global women’s health, she cares for vulnerable urban patients in the US and tackles maternal mortality when working in low-income and post-conflict countries, most recently in Afghanistan. 

I coached TEDMED 2014 speakers under Assefi's direction this year, for a three-day program with 51 percent women speakers, a level unique among TED conferences, let alone your conference. I asked Assefi to share perspective and lessons learned. And I agree with her: It felt different this year, for those of us backstage, and for the speakers, in a good way. To see my retweets of conferences where participants are talking about programs with few or no women speakers, follow @NoWomenSpeakers on Twitter.)

Why was it important to you to seek greater gender diversity among the speakers at TEDMED?

Diversity of all kinds is extremely important to me and one of the signatures of my curatorial style. Beyond the fact that it's politically correct and the right thing to do (especially in terms of potential mentorship impact and connecting with a wide audience), a diverse cast of characters means a more varied set of ideas. I believe much of learning occurs on the edge of discomfort, and that can often be achieved by listening to someone from a background or philosophy different from ours.

Do you think it's more difficult because your topics are related to health, medicine, technology and science? 

Not really. Perhaps only for the hard sciences. However, there are ever increasing numbers of women biologists and doctors.

What are the challenges you saw in securing women speakers for your program?

When we sorted through nominations, men are around 5-7 times more likely to be nominated, even by women. Men are more likely to believe they'd be a good fit with our stage, whereas women sometimes undermine themselves and their abilities. Highly successful women and ethnic minorities are disproportionately recruited to speak, and they're more likely to be juggling household/child-rearing concerns. The net effect is that they're less available to do non-essential, non-paying speaking opportunities like TEDMED. Women are also more likely to drop out.

What was easy about it?

I've found that once you set your intention to do something, the rest follows.

Did it feel different having so many women on the program?

Yes. The program was more interesting, covered greater breadth, and inspired many more people. Also, women tend to prepare more for their talks than men.

What reactions did you get from speakers? From the audience?

Some may not have noticed. Other conference organizers were impressed and laudatory. We haven't polled the delegates yet. Here's one unsolicited piece of feedback from one of our speakers: "I have never been to a conference (medical or otherwise) where I felt as if women were so empowered and treated like equals. I absolutely loved the fact that you did not make a big deal about it - you just treated it as totally normal that >50% of the speakers were women. This was not a 'woman's conference' but it did more for the cause of women doctors/scientists/people than any targeted gathering could have aspired to do! Thank you for this! I hope all of medicine follows your lead!"

What would you advise other curators and conference organizers who want to see more women on the program?

Be conscious about making this a goal. Whenever there is a white man nominated for the speaking position, ask yourself: is there a woman or minority of his caliber who could equally do the job?

What would you say to those who say it's impossible, or too difficult?

You're not working hard enough.

For years, I've heard other conference curators (including women) bemoan the fact that it's really hard to achieve gender parity. TEDMED 2014 has shown it's possible when you prioritize it. We can continue to improve upon our diversity of all kinds (age, field, nationality, ethnicity, political orientation, etc) at TEDMED, and I hope we do.

The TED blog selected these fresh ideas shared at TEDMED2014. Enjoy the previews while we wait for the conference videos to be released.

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