A Conference of One's Own

When TED calls, you answer the phone.

TED is a 26-year-old organization that hosts some of the world's most sought-after conferences, and a highly trafficked website featuring 18-minute talks on "ideas worth spreading." If your mom, co-worker, or best friend hasn't sent you a link to a TED talk already, it's just a matter of time.

Last month, I was invited to participate in a brainstorming session about a new TED initiative: TEDWomen. TED is teaming up with the Paley Center for Media, a think tank of sorts, to create an event in Washington, D.C., focused on girls and women. I was immediately honored to be invited, and simultaneously, a bit cynical about the premise. Did we really need another women's conference? Why not insert gender issues into the annual TED conference?

I wasn't the only skeptic. At Salon's Broadsheet blog, Ryan Brown writes, "Given the wonky gender imbalance in other TED conferences, it's hard to shake the feeling that creating a separate event for women simply throws up another barrier to their full participation in the TED brand." And Ariel Schwartz of Fast Company adds that "women are shaping the future more than ever. But these changes should be reflected in the TED and TEDGlobal conferences."

June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media and an organizer of TEDWomen, posted a response to the critiques in which she argued that the work occurring at the intersections of gender and social change is distinct and unprecedented enough to warrant its own conference. "A new lens is revealing women as powerful change agents and innovators," she wrote. "This story is new, important, interesting." Added Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center, "The launch of TEDWomen marks an enthusiastic 'yes/and,' not an 'either/or.'"

The debate touches on some interesting questions in the half-finished revolution that is feminism. For starters, do we still need to carve out separate spaces for girls and women in order to ensure that their ideas are heard, valued, and actualized?

As a graduate of a women's college, I took for granted that Mary Wollstonecraft would be discussed right alongside Plato, that every English class would feature at least equal numbers of men and women writers, and that my sociology classes, even when taught by a man, would delve into gender dynamics. This seems unnecessary, you might argue, at a time when young women outnumber men on college campuses. But I've been surprised to learn how different my experience was from those of my friends who went to co-ed institutions.

Of course the ideal -- both in higher education and at events like the TED conference -- is a gender-conscious environment that features the ideas, voices, and funding capital of both women and men in equal numbers. But that would also require living in a society that has socialized women to speak up as confidently and as readily as men, not to mention one in which women control an equal amount of wealth (even Doc Brown's DeLorean doesn't go back in time far enough to prevent that disparity). The more I heard about TEDWomen, the more I realized that it was a chance for some of the most powerful people in the country -- the typical TED audience has venture capitalists, Fortune 500 CEOs, and policy-makers -- to get a women's college version of Social Change 101.

In some arenas, we are better off pushing existing co-ed spaces to be more consciously egalitarian -- crowding out the "old boys" with some "new girls." Though women-owned small businesses are great, for example, it's also critical that women infiltrate corporate boards and get more leadership positions in multinational corporations. It wouldn't make sense for us to create female-only op-ed pages (sometimes, regrettably, called Style sections). Instead, we strive to get more women-penned opinions into already existing, high-impact venues.

This brings up another tough question -- can male-dominated spaces be transformed by changing hearts and minds, or do we need quotas and other hard-nosed interventions that essentially force people to change? It's not enough for a conference to nod to "celebrating women" or a male keynote speaker to give the ol' "my wife is the real boss" wink-and-a-smile routine. If anything, these public-relations stunts delay real change by pacifying everyone.

Which is why it's actually refreshing that TED isn't claiming that it can transform the culture of its organization overnight in order to be politically correct. Salon reports that "less than 20 percent of ‘TED talks,' as conference presentations are known, have been given by women, and of the speakers at this year's conference, only 17 of 57 will be." The TED conference was founded by two men -- Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks -- in 1984 and has a long history of focusing on male-dominated fields like technology and design. It is being pushed to change, but it's going to take some time.

Meanwhile, TED's unparalleled expertise in finding intriguing new approaches to social change is being leveraged to focus on girls and women. Philanthropists, thought-leaders, and gatekeepers of all kinds are going to sit in the audience at TEDWomen in December and be exposed to some of the world's most cutting-edge thinkers on everything from disaster economics to altruism to linguistics. If TED history is any indication, these privileged audience members (many of whom, let's hope, will be men) will open their minds and their wallets to these grassroots organizers, artists, scientists, and human-rights defenders.

Audre Lorde famously wrote that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." In an era when our most recognized and celebrated public intellectuals, cultural curators, and social entrepreneurs are still men, I'm all for using the master's tools to build a house of our very own -- even if our goal is to live there for only a short time.