TED talks rising to the challenge of gender imbalance 

Recent study shines spotlight on the high ratio of men speaking compared to small number of women

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She calls it "one of the challenges of our day."

June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, is candid and passionate when talking about the difficulties in attracting women to the TED stage — that revered platform where the world's forward thinkers share their "Ideas Worth Spreading." Next year the stage will be set in Vancouver and Whistler.

But three decades after TED was born as a conference dedicated to discussions of Technology, Entertainment and Design, evolving into one of the preeminent forums for progressive ideas, it still remains difficult to get women to the stage — a simple fact and a tempting challenge for the organization.

Cohen is responding this week to a recent study about the gender imbalance in the posted talks on Ted.com, free talks from more than 12,000 speakers seen by more than a billion people online.

The study, from PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open access online journal, found that of the 998 unique individual presenters in 1,202 TED talks examined in the study, 27 per cent were women.

But if Cohen's efforts to entice women to TED are anything to go by, that number is nothing to be scoffed at.

"We view 30 per cent women as a really strong showing," she said.

It's the same issue Whistler mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has been speaking to recently in the wake of this summer's Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Vancouver after which she asked staff, with support from council, to develop a family-friendly council policy to entice more women into politics.

While she could not speak to the research on TED, the mayor emailed from Japan, where she has been visiting Whistler's sister city Kariuzawa.

"On a general basis, gender inequality remains an unfortunate fact of life. But we are making inroads," Wilhelm-Morden wrote. "For example, Karuizawa has elected its first ever female chair of its council."

This year Ted.com is on track for 28.5 per cent women in its posted talks.

And while the goal is always to strive for a 50:50 ratio men to women, the fact of the matter is, it's not always easy, said Cohen.

"It actually does require a lot of organizational focus," she added.

It's a topic close to her heart and one she has been working on diligently over eight and a half years with the organization.

In that time she has thought a lot about the challenges of enticing women who are harder to find — for example just 20 per cent of speakers represented by Speakers Bureaus are women — much more likely to say no to a request to speak and more likely to cancel.

Cohen said there are key reasons for these trends:

• women often place a very high premium on being physically present for their teams at work;

• women hesitate to take credit for work when many have very collaborative leadership styles;

• women often feel they are too busy;

• women also feel that they're not ready to talk on the TED stage.

That last point said Cohen is understandable given that women are scrutinized, questioned and criticized more deeply than men are for things like physical appearance and their voices.

"Women have a whole other level of challenges when they take the stage at TED," she said.

"Seventy countries were represented at TEDActive this year, and we expect a similar number next year. We're excited to see that we already have a few Whistler locals in the mix, and we hope to have more join us.

"Whistler is the perfect place to hold TEDActive. After speakers share their big ideas from the main stage, we can't wait to connect with others and discuss them right in the midst of one of nature's most inspiring settings."



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