Great, diverse women with courage, impressive ideas, grace, beauty, global reach, compassion, gentle but powerfully persuasive voices, bold innovation in the toughest of times, and inspiring, moving stories -- this was the force of the TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 7 and 8, which featured more than 70 speakers. Many women in the audience (and at the myriad TEDx conferences organized locally all over the world, from Beijing to Doha, Eleventh Avenue to Elm City) could have told similar but innumerable stories of lives as architects of change.
Like countless others who watched the conference from home, it was web-streaming technology that brought the women and girls of TEDWomen, shaping the future with imagination, insight and persistence, into my home. It was quite an experience, but it would have been even better to be there in person to meet other women, have discussions over coffee or wine and follow the admonitions to make this an "immersive experience" and ditch the laptops and Blackberries that tether us to our work life.
There were remarkable A-list headliners who are well-known to Americans -- Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Nancy Pelosi, Arianna Huffington, Jody Williams, Eve Ensler, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Donna Karan, Pat Mitchell -- but the power of the conference was in the lesser-known prime movers from all corners of the planet.
Some came to speak about a passion I share: creating balanced leadership for better outcomes for companies, communities and countries. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Icelandic leader Halla Tomasdottir of Ardur Capital told us why women's values and approaches are credited when there are more women decision-makers, and why it matters. In a way, the entire conference added up to why this is true -- over and over through the lives and actions of presenter after presenter.
What touched my heart, however, what renewed and stirred me -- a phenomenon felt at many women's meetings -- was hearing hopeful voices of lives far different from mine. I'll remember a Palestinian poet evoking peace instead of "girls spoiled before ripening"; an American philanthropist sharing how investing patient capital with compassion, love, accountability and justice can change lives and build communities; the first Indian woman to be a police chief, who now runs a prison with the tools of education and meditation instead of fear; and a young Iranian filmmaker using her art to show the dynamism of women today.
Their powerful voices echoed a universal lesson: you can refuse to accept the status quo and instead act to solve problems and live out your dreams of a better, more peaceful and just world. The personal message was also clear: don't wait; you can shape what is to come. As a lifelong activist but a novice at TED events, the concept of being part of a movement to build a global community of innovators, practical idealists creating connections and collaborations for the future, is new to me but is clearly the way of the future.
But here is the challenge for TED: what about men learning from women's experiences? This conference emphasized that women have "ideas big enough to change the world," but the reality is that women are still largely without the power to make systemic change. The current world leaders of commerce, government, the arts and media -- virtually all men -- hold the purse strings and dance to a different vision of power, wealth and dominance. We're all living in their world. Men would have learned a lot at TEDWomen. Research tells us that there has to be a critical mass of women before power groups can hear, enough women at the table to create an echo chamber so that the ideas, styles and approaches can be seen as important enough to be acted upon.
So, TED, thanks for this wonderful conference, and I hope it happens every year. And now, how about having all TED events have half women and half men as speakers, fellows and in the audience? It would reflect the fact that gender is not a determinant of great ideas and would bring us all closer to that vision of a more just and sustainable world.
Follow Linda Tarr-Whelan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WomenLeadtheWay
Does the world need TEDWomen? (Salon)
The Case for TEDWomen (Ms. Magazine Blog)