Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is @TEDWomen a good idea or a ghetto? I think it's a good thing

I was excited when TEDWomen was announced--a special two-day conference of TED talks about women and girls, across disciplines and topics and countries, set for early December here in Washington, DC.  Part of the TEDx program which has covered in-depth topics as varied as the BP oil spill or topics focused  on one city or neighborhood, it struck me as another way of slicing the vast array of potential topics with a special perspective.

Actually, that was the part I could assume, as it's how TED operates. What really excited me was the chance to see a program built around and focused on women and topics related to their concerns and perspectives, one powered by TED's incredible reach. 

Then came the backlash.  Women and men complained that this would segregate or ghetto-ize women, suggest that they're not capable of participating in a mixed-gender event, and should not occur. A sample: This writer says: "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."

Now TEDWomen has restated that both men and women will speak at the conference on the topic of women and girls and how they are powering "ideas worth spreading:" 
...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. Now, I understand (after reading some insightful comments) 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.
I understand the umbrage. Who wants to think they need extra help? And in fact, those who pay attention to the attitudes and practices that keep many women from speaking in public, or just speaking up, work hard to say that "this isn't because there's something wrong with the women."  Great--something (I hope) we can all agree on.

But there is something wrong (and has been for centuries) in how we speak about and carry out public speaking when women are doing it. So no matter how able, driven and intelligent the women speakers are, they're often talked over, omitted from programs, or otherwise discouraged from speaking, sometimes by laws and more often by subtle forms of discrimination. I wish that at least one talk at TEDWomen would emphasize this, because it underscores just how extraordinary the conference is--and how unfortunate it is that it's extraordinary.

Consider these gender issues in speaking, culled from this blog:
  • Men and women routinely repeat four myths about women and speaking:  that women talk more than men do, that the organizers couldn't find any women competent enough to speak at professional conferences in a wide range of professions (even those dominated by women), that women aren't good at speaking up, and that women's "too emotional" style of speaking holds them back. Research disproves the myths (see details at the link)--for example, studies of women and men speaking in meetings finds that women are no less capable at speaking up, but are viewed negatively when they do. The myths are effective ways to keep women from speaking up in public, a subtle form of discrimination so ingrained we barely recognize it.
  • Keeping women off the program as speakers has a long history that, in the U.S., includes Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the leaders of the movement to get women a vote.  Today, it's still a hot topic of discussion in professions that range from high technology and social media to medicine, psychiatry and library science.  Set against this backdrop, TED's record of programs with 30-40 percent women speakers is what's unusual, and helping to reshape a longtime   standard that works against women speakers.  Even in ordinary meetings where women are present, they often find themselves talked over, or others take credit for points women made earlier--subtle, smaller ways to "keep them off the program." (It happens to powerful women like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as well as in your meetings.)
  • Women who speak in public, or just speak up, often face being dismissed as sexual objects. Sojourner Truth was told she must be a man because no women could speak so well, and men suggested she show her breasts to a group of women to prove her gender (she bared them in front of the questioning, mixed crowd instead). More recently, Internet researcher Danah Boyd gave a talk in front of a live Twitter feed in which men in the audience wondered publicly what it would be like to "do" her. 
I'm hoping women will see the conference as long-overdue rather than an attempt to hold them back. What do you think? TEDWomen is eager to get your feedback, and I am, too.

(TED talk on the art of choosing by Sheena Iyengar.)