Speak Up, Speak Out, Take The Stage: The World Needs More TED Women

I was tempted to start this blog entry with a caveat.

But then I decided it probably wouldn’t do much good – someone somewhere is bound to be offended by what follows. So there are no apologies here. I’ll seek forgiveness later if required.

Before I go any further, a word of advice: whoever you are, wherever you are, register for the next and closest TEDx event within reach (the worldwide list is here, the October 10 TEDx Dubai event is here – register by Oct 1 for a chance to get invited to TEDx Dubai!).

(In case you don’t have clue what TED is, learn the basics here, and see some cool examples of TED Talks here.)

But when you get to the TED event (uh oh, a caveat crept in, despite myself…), don’t expect to find as many women as men sharing their wisdom on stage and/or in the limelight.

Even TED, one of the most AMAZINGLY progressive movements of our time, and one of which I am a TOTALLY COMMITTED fan, hasn’t managed to achieve gender balance on its conference slates or website.

Mabrook James, Giorgio & TEDx Dubai Team

As an avid “TEDster,” I was ecstatic when I first learned about TEDx Dubai. I couldn’t believe that a TED event was going to be held in Dubai, where I live, and that I might actually have the chance to ATTEND. Wow. A dream come true.

I was, and still am, grateful to James Piecowye, educator, on-air personality and idea maverick, and Giorgio Ungania, for bringing TEDx to Dubai.

Along with their team, they’re doing an AMAZING job of putting together the October 10, 2009, event in Dubai. They had an idea, and they’re making it happen. That takes vision, initiative, determination and a whole whack (that’s eastern Canadian for “lots”), of hard work.

I’ve supported them, in my own small way, from the start, and I will continue to support them to the end, though they may not always like my methods, they should know my heart is in the right place.

Where Are The Women?

During the last month, as the slate of TEDx Dubai speakers has been announced, the buzz around the conference has grown – and justifiably so. What a great line-up of TEDx Talkers! TEDx Dubai is on the road to being a massive success thanks to Pieowye, Ungania and the TEDx Dubai team of volunteers and supporters.

As the list of a planned 20 speakers continues to roll out, however, one thing bothers me: of the eight announced so far, all are men. They are clearly competent, capable and compelling. But not one women to date? None? (Susan notes later: in the end only three of the 20 speakers were women, and one of the three was a 13-year-old girl.)

Yes, TED is about ideas. But surely there are women out there who have some…?

So where are they, I wondered… these women with ideas? The obvious place to start looking, of course, was at TED, the parent of TEDx.

What I found disappointed me:

  • Of the 20 speakers highlighted on the TED “home” page, only three (15%) are women.
  • Of the 120 speakers listed in the first 10 pages of alphabetic list of speakers on the TED website, only 33 (25%) are women.
  • Only six (less than 20%), of the 33 speakers at TED 2008 were women. Their numbers more than tripled (to 19) at TED 2009, but that was still significantly less than the number of men (33), with whom they shared the stage.

    I asked organiser Piecowye (albeit indirectly), why no women speakers have yet been announced for TEDx Dubai, despite the event team’s best efforts to achieve gender balance.

    susan_pink_jacket_cropped.jpgHis answer wasn’t unexpected: “Our problem is a simple one, women are reluctant to participate.”

    I’ve worked as a public speaking coach and trainer for the past 10 years, and was myself painfully shy until my early 30s (that’s me in the pink with the microphone, not being as timid as I once was).

    So I know that speaking in front of an audience tops the list of things of which many of us, both women and men, are most afraid. I often coach people who are terrified of speaking and help them to become confident, powerful communicators.


    Remarkably, if anthropologist Helen Fisher is to be believed, women should in fact have a physiological advantage in the realm of public speaking.

    Our brains (says Fisher in a fascinating 2006 TED Talk entitled Why We Love & Cheat) make us, in general, better communicators:

    …and we’re finding more and more and more gender differences in the brain. One of them is women’s verbal ability. Women can talk….Even in places like India and Japan, where women are not moving rapidly into the regular job market, they’re moving into journalism.

    Today 54 percent of people who are writers in America are women. It’s one of many, many characteristics that women have that they will bring into the job market.They’ve got incredible people skills, negotiating skills. They’re highly imaginative. They tend to be web thinkers.

    Because the female parts of the brain are better connected, they tend to collect more pieces of data when they think, put them into more complex patterns, see more options and outcomes. They tend to be contextual, holistic thinkers, what I call web thinkers…

    (Thanks to TEDx Dubai’s Giorgio Ungania for leading me to Fisher.)

    You would think, based on the kind of brain power of which Fisher spoke, that stages, conferences and speaking circuits would be crawling with women speakers – not so!


    Why not? In my view, women are psychologically, socially and culturally disadvantaged in ways that make it difficult, at least at the moment, for many of us to make the most of the abilities that we inherently possess.

    Women the world over generally have been, and continue to be, raised and socialised to believe they are not good enough, to take a back seat, to not blow their own horns, to undervalue what they do, to be fearful of being in the spotlight and to believe that they are less skilled, less worthy, less powerful and otherwise less important than men.

    I know this to be true from my own personal experience, from direct observation of, and interaction with, other women, as well as from reading the findings of countless experts. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but they are relatively few.

    In addition to beating the fear of public speaking that both men and women seem to have, women must also overcome deeply ingrained psycho-socio-cultural barriers to taking center stage.

    It’s hardly surprising then, that TED and TEDx events have a disproportionate number of male speakers. That doesn’t mean it’s right, or that the status quo is acceptable.  It means something, or rather some things need to change.

    AWR Supports Positive Change

    One of the positive steps I thought I could take with AWR is to provide more opportunities for members, fans and site visitors to see examples of confident, engaging, and interesting women speakers.
    So, in a two-week tripartite tribute starting Sunday, September 27 (my Mom’s 81st birthday), www.amazingwomenrock.com will honour:

    1. women around the world with ideas worth spreading,
    2. the TED movement, and
    3. the first TEDx Dubai conference on October 10,

    by featuring a daily TED Talk by an amazing woman right here on the site.

    I hope you enjoy the talks as I much as I do. More important, if you feel anxious about speaking out or speaking up, I hope they encourage you to step into your fear, and either to speak for the first time or to speak more often.

    The world can only benefit from hearing more women’s voices – at TED, and TEDx, and beyond.