Separate Still Isn't Equal: Sexism Among TED Conferences

07/28/2010 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TED (Technology Entertainment and Design), the organization that curates conferences to promote "ideas worth spreading," has announced a separate conference for "women-centered ideas." The TEDWomen conference finally puts women and women's ideas in their proper place: at the margin.

TED, the digital world's most prominent aggregator of big ideas, thinks it can resolve complaints that its programs are male-dominated by creating a one-off conference, TEDWomen, that focuses on ideas by and about women. From an organization that claims to be all about cutting-edge ideas, TED's decision displays simplistic, outdated, and unenlightened thinking. Despite its good intentions, TED's Women conference demonstrates the very discrimination it is supposed to address.

Creating a special conference just for women demonstrates that TED organizers think that "women-centered ideas," whatever these might be, are somehow less interesting and less important than other ideas. Rather than adding more women presenters and more of women's interests directly to TED's center stage, organizers have created a Women's conference to serve as arm candy for the conference about real ideas --the ideas presented by and centered on those who are not women, a group otherwise known as men.

That TED has chosen to segregate women's ideas into a conference of their own is important, because TED is an overwhelmingly influential arbiter of the global conversation about which ideas really do matter. TED styles itself as a clearinghouse of knowledge that links "the world's most inspired thinkers" with a "community of curious souls." TED has built its global influence by curating conferences where "big thinkers" present provocative, often previously unheralded ideas to well-heeled and highly influential live audience. TED's reach extends beyond the conferences through online videos of TED Talks, which have been viewed over 290 million times. For the chosen group of thinkers, visionaries and teachers, presenting at a TED conference propels their ideas into a powerful global network, exponentially expanding who and what these ideas can influence.

Since women have been significantly under-represented on the TED stage, accounting for a mere 17% of presenters, big thinkers who are women have had very limited access to this powerful network. Thus, when the separate conference for Women was announced, some responded enthusiastically. Others, more thoughtfully, recognize that TED's separate Women's conference is an uncritical, temporary, superficial fix that does nothing to address the ongoing sexism at TED's core.

Once upon a time, it made sense to create separate conferences for women. Women thinkers and activists were so marginal, so subordinated, and so far from the public platform that separate conferences were virtually the only way to create space for women to present, discuss and promote their ideas. These days there are only two situations where separate conferences for women are politically, socially, and intellectually legitimate. The first situation is when the topic touches on women alone, such as a conference on menopause. The second situation is when the purpose of the conference is to bring women together to address women's own, self-determined needs.

The TED Women conference meets neither of these criteria. The topics announced for the conference are not about or for women alone. Both women and men are interested in topics like "the world leader bringing peace to her conflict-ridden nation." Nor is TEDWomen designed for women participants to address women's own self-determined needs. Instead, TEDWomen is designed to separate "women centered ideas" from other ideas. TEDWomen demonstrates the belief that ideas generated by women, focused on women, and relevant to women don't belong on TED's main stage. Instead, at TEDWomen, women-centered ideas will be presented as niche content in the otherwise male world of worthy ideas.

Would it be better for TED to immediately balance the number of men and women presenters at TED's next main conference? Maybe as a first step, but a superficial gender balancing of next year's presenters won't get at the real problem of sexism buried deep inside TED's mission and values. Only a critical, thoughtful revision of the processes TED uses to choose which ideas are worth sharing will eliminate the latent sexism that marginalizes ideas about women while suggesting that ideas worth spreading are limited to men.

TED would do well to heed the big idea of one of its own speakers, the women's rights crusader Sheryl WuDunn, who was one of the 17 women in a slate of 58 speakers at last week's TED Global conference in Oxford. WuDunn described gender inequality as the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century, and reminded the TED audience that material, political and intellectual gender equality is important to both women and men.

If gender equality is an idea worth sharing, isn't it also an idea worth putting into practice?