Inside the 2010 TedWomen Conference

Joni Evans reports

TED was once a small nonprofit started in the mid-80s. Devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, its aim is to bring together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment and Design. Since then, it has grown to be its own university… a place that features lectures by the most remarkable people in the world.

This year — in fact last week — TED held its first conference for women. An amalgam of TED and the Paley Center, it was double hosted by Pat Mitchell, CEO of the Paley Center and June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media. While this conference was just an offshoot of the full-fledged TED held annually in Long Beach, California, it filled a dance card for two days with over 70 presenters, and was broadcast to more than 100 cities throughout the world.

The highlight of all TED conferences is the 18 minute lecture, where each presenter comes onstage to talk about anything they choose. There’s no fanfare — just information pumped out like a soda fountain orders: Next. The annual, original TED conference in Monterey (or “big Ted”) is always on steroids; attendees are assaulted by its brilliance, creativity, big heads with big ideas. This one was a mini-conference — but not so small that the 650 women who attended minded shelling out $2200 for the privilege of being in the audience (and braving the 20 degree-weather in Washington, D.C.)

So, in case you didn’t make it, here are some of the highlights:

  • After a pretty fantastic noisy band called “Asphalt Orchestra” blew their and our brains out, we were treated to a talk by Hanna Rosin. Hanna wrote the explosive Atlantic Monthly article earlier this year, titled “The End of Men” (she made it clear that this wasn’t her title). But the thesis — that women have already won — was hers, along with the statement that “men are the new ball and chain.” Whoa! The audience laughed, then cheered. Still, some of us were worried that this talk would set the tone of the conference. For the first day, at least, some felt this tone was a bit too “girly/feminist/breaking the glass ceiling” oriented.
  • Ted Turner was interviewed by Pat Mitchell (who worked for him for decades at CNN) in an interview that didn’t quite “flow.” (I somehow suspect this was due more to Ted seeming hard of hearing than not understanding the questions asked). Ted always gives his due to the strong women in his life, and observed that the world would be a much better place if, for the next 100 years, women were the heads of state everywhere. Everyone clapped. But a day later, Secretary Madeleine Albright countered: “If you think that the world will be better off with women as their only leaders, you have forgotten high school.”
  • Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment and the woman known for overhauling Bravo, presented some original research. She wanted to discover the impact of television culture after some 50 years — and what unfolded was completely unexpected. Contrasting America’s political events against five decades of popular television, she poured the hits into such categories as Comfort (“Gunsmoke”); Social Commentary (“Laugh-In”); Irreverence (“Smothers Brothers”) and finally, Cynicism (“All in the Family,”) and weighted them against the most stirring events of the time. By 2010, scripted programming was left in the dust. According to Lauren, this all adds up to American television’s conscience: Moral ambiguity has taken hold. Judgment (aka, reality TV) is where America wants to be.
  • Tony Parker is an activist and visionary who co-founded A Call to Men, an organization to stop violence against women. He brought down the house with his ManBox — and fortunately it’s online right now.  The rules that poor men grow up with: men lead, don’t cry, don’t show emotion, women are inferior, property, objects, sexual objects. But it was his personal story that galvanized the room: as a 12 year old African American boy growing up in Harlem, he was pressured to take part  in a rape. His last words: “My liberation as a man is tied up to your liberation as a woman.”
  • Hans Rosling arrives on stage with one prop: a washing machine. Behind him, the images of young and old women squatting by a filthy river washing their families’ clothes. In an affecting presentation, he told a powerful story of what one invention has done — and could do — to change women’s lives globally.
  • Nancy Pelosi, a dinner speaker, told an affecting story of what it was like to sit at the table for the first time in the Bush White House. She said the first time, she felt her chair was already crowded … she could feel Susan B. Anthony and all the other major historical figures who got women to where they are today sitting there with her. She realized she could never be publicly shy again, and that crowded chair gave her the impetus to be strong.
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made a case for changing the mores of women at work. She observed that they hang back because being successful and capable for men is a plus, but for women, it’s a negative. She’s got a really easy style, a great presenter, and she drove her message home when she said she thought it was too late for her generation to really penetrate the glass ceiling.
  • Donna Karan, with a broken arm  sporting a cast that looked like it was made out of expensive black leather, talked about her life’s journey and how birth and death were always with her … simultaneously. Her mentor Anne Klein’s death? The birth of her baby. Her husband, Steve’s death? The start of her spiritual journey.  Forthright and strikingly open.
  • Too many more to mention, though I can still see Rachael Ray talking about cooking 12 meals a day every day on television, and then going home to cook one more for her family;  Jacqueline Novogratz of the nonprofit Acumen Fund observing that “The most dangerous animal on the planet? Young men.” Heather Knight of Carnegie-Mellon’s Robotics Institute with her robot named Marilyn Monrobot (it looks like Marilyn!) Naomi Klein, powerful as she catalogs crises like the BP spill, and proving that most human disasters are linked  to commerce.  wOw’s own adorable cartoonist Liza Donnelly wowed everyone with her New Yorker selections. Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian poet whose powerful performance is a cross between hip hop and classical theatre. Landscape architect Kate Orff explaining how oysters can build amphibious reefs to protect us from global warning tides and filter five gallons of clean water a day. Deborah Rhodes, on the medical front, convinced us totally that Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI) is far more accurate and cost effective than mammograms…particularly in dense breasts. While it is currently FDA approved, the medical community is resisting.  (I’d bet on Deborah Rhodes to change all that.)
  • I’ll end with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a surprise speaker on the second day looking crisp in a gray pantsuit. Hair pulled straight and back. Schoolgirl fresh. She uses all her authority to speak: The subjugation of women is a threat to nation’s security. Equal rights: clearly the difference in either a nation’s security or its instability. She pledged to elevate the diplomacy budget to the importance of the defense budget (12 times higher) as she goes around the fighting for women’s rights. But what brought down the house was her story about an African woman and a cow.

A stimulating (though short of mind-blowing) conference, and a good inaugural debut to what will surely become a perennial TED program. Sign up now.

4 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Joni –

    I don’t say this often, but this was my kind of thing.  I learn and enjoy being in situations where the talk is so varied – particularly as you have no idea ahead of time the road that the speaker will take.  Loving people as I do, listening to how their minds flow, hearing unexpectedly personal things that sooner or later we will all go through, like it or not, and how someone has coped and hopefully begun to move ahead, becoming much more thoughtful and understanding in the process. 

    After saying all that, I wish I could have been there.  Joan

  2. avatar brad berger says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if Sarah Palin filled a void and lead the movement for the ERA.Do women realize there is no national holiday in honor of a woman.Sarah Palin is the woman who can garner publicity and of course political men dislike her already and that is why she should try to get the women to support her and she should support all women. She has the talent and forum to lead women to a true democracy in our own country.Women earn less than men for the same job and are battered and raped over and over – why because the men are in control.What happened to the ERA in this session of Congress with Democrats in control of our government and a woman Speaker of the House and a liberal President and a liberal Senate Judiciary Committee. Absolutely zero – the ERA never got out of Committee – men just don’t let the ERA get anyplace and the liberal establishment women just go along with the folly.Shame on all these people who do not believe in a true democracy. It is time that the majority of our country has equal rights.

  3. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    It would be nice to find this kind of conference on a local level too. Women are a huge untapped resource. We should be celebrating their contributions on every level. Is this conference open to the public or select invitees? I realize this was just the first public venue but I’d love to attend this in person if it continues.

  4. avatar Jason01 says:

    Adressing Hanna Rosin’s presentation,

    I am a man born in 1973 and I must say that it is refreshing to hear a woman finally admit what has been obvious to men in my generation since the eighties.  All I have ever heard all my life is how girls have it hard and how girls are somehow more deserving, that my “male” tendencies are unacceptable.  One need not look further than prime time television to see that men are cast as hapless saps that are somehow defective.  The facts are that circumstances, laws, social trends in the US are almost entirely stacked against us.  Even the educational and social resources that are designed to aid people are almost exclusively for women.  The landscape seems pretty stark for men.
    Let’s add to Hanna Rosins post mortem appraisal on the health of men in our society.  Men account for the majority of homeless, they account for nearly 80% of suicides, are by far the victims of violence and murder.  Statistics show that men are just as likely to be a victim of domestic assault as women.  Being estranged from one’s own society for being born male to answer for crimes of a patriarchal society I never knew is frustrating.
    Bottom line is, (even if you think I am unmanly for complaining), is that men need help from society too, and now more than ever.  Men are useful, and dare I say we are even needed.  There are compelling reasons not to ostracize us from your institutions.  There is no reason to handicap us in your schools; call us dumb, or violent.
    So when you’re done being giddy about the decimated state of men in this country (USA), we could use some help and attention too.  Thanks.