As a producer of events that are partly intended to bring more women technologists to the stage, I was glad to hear that TED conference curators planned to get 70 women speaking in December for a new iteration of their series. The “Technology Entertainment Design” presentations have focused less on tech in recent years to accommodate more diverse topics (think philanthropy and medicine among other topics). While my first reaction is to be disappointed by the move to spend less time on deep and consumer tech innovations, the two days in DC were a welcome change from conferences and workshops with narrower focuses.
Co-host Pat Mitchell, who said she “takes TED like a mind spa,” said that about 500 names were on the table for potential speakers. (“Everyone suddenly realized that they know a woman who should be on stage,” she said in a press briefing. This was a major change from the 85 percent of speaker recommendations that usually come in for prospective male presenters.) Among the women who shared their work were Cynthia Breazeal, who runs the Personal Robots Lab at the MIT Media Lab and demonstrated how distant co-working can be improved by mobile phone docks with arm-like appendages, and Heather Knight, a roboticist and sensor-based artist who shared a standup joke-telling robot that gauges audience reactions and reacts accordingly. (Icelandic financier Halla Tomasdottir’s talk is the first talk by a woman presenter at this week’s conference to be available online, and I strongly suggest watching Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s observations about working motherhood when they’re released.)
I agree with Mitchell’s co-host, June Cohen, that it can be harder for producers to find women speakers, as they’re less likely to accept invitations to present and more likely to cancel to be with their teams and children. But whallahen news of TEDWomen was announced earlier this year, it ignited a firestorm from people who said women shouldn’t be treated differently or with kid gloves. “No one asked why there was a TEDAfrica,” Mitchell said in describing how the one-time conference and corresponding international TEDx events were intended to show ideas about the world from the perspective of a certain demographic.
Instead of hosting an event for women, you may ask why TED doesn’t look to get more women speaking at all of their conferences (referred to by some participants as “regular TED”). “It’s a ‘yes, and’–we’ve been bringing more women to the stage and they now make up 35 to 45 percent of speakers,” Cohen said.
Which means that it’s partly the TED community’s role to suggest more female speakers–and considering that women still make up the far minority in tech fields, we’ve got a lot of those idea champions’ names to drop in the hat.