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Designing Women, Part One
Mothers of the Earth unite

by DK Holland

When the study was repeated in 2013 at NYU, Catherine (Heidi) was seen as more likable than Martin (Howard) and actually more students wanted to work with Catherine than Martin. This showed real progress—but students still described Catherine as less trustworthy than Martin, that she was “out for herself.”4 There were suspicions: Was she using her “hot” looks to get ahead? What were her motives? Martin had to have a career. She did not.

Yet many more American women are breadwinners now.5 More “liberated” today than 90 years ago when suffragette Alice Paul wrote the original ERA, many women are living single and loving it and/or have come out as lesbians and/or have the emotional support of their spouses, extended families, friends and communities. Others are spouseless, having had the courage to divorce or never marry, no longer fearing the stigma of being considered an “old maid.” This shows a huge shift in attitude since the nineteenth century, when the main preoccupation of a woman was the necessity of finding someone to take care of her. There is hope for Heidi and Catherine. The ERA was reintroduced in the Senate in March 2013 (there have been over 30 attempts to pass the ERA so far) this time by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. What’s different this time is the record number of progressive-thinking women serving in both houses of Congress and a more savvy female electorate. Is the tide turning—finally, in favor of equality for women?

WHO ARE THE TED WOMEN?
Some women who regularly attend the TED Conference, in particular Pat Mitchell of the Paley Center and June Cohen, TED’s executive producer of media, decided a few years ago it was high time to host a TEDWomen. June says, “We launched TEDWomen in 2010, with the intention of holding a one-time event. We were fascinated by the evolving story of women worldwide—from the developing world, where women’s education is a defining factor in economic growth, to the West, where you can clearly see the impact from generations of educated women.”

But some women feared a female-focused TED conference. Following are snippets from the responses of women invited to attend TEDWomen 2010: “Important. Dated. Bold. A good start. Bad for my career. Inspiring. Necessary. Unnecessary. Soooo 1970s. Asking the wrong question. Irrelevant. Relevant. Risky. Too little too late. A great way to start a fight. Soooo 1960s. Just like a woman. Essential. Inspiring. Key to economic growth. Dangerous. Interesting. Ughhhh. Just like a man. Better than nothing. Embarrassing. Soooo 1920s. The last thing I want to do on a perfectly good Tuesday. Modern. Sexist. Controversial. Illuminating.”

I was just as conflicted as they were. But, as I sat in an audience of 800 people, primarily women, at that first TEDWomen in 2010, I was struck by the generosity of the conference’s spirit, its inclusiveness. The two days were filled with impressive speakers (more than 60, almost all of whom were women) courageous in their whole-heartedness, including well-known authorities like business leader Sheryl Sandberg, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, journalists Arianna Huffington and Naomi Klein and fashion designer Donna Karan. In addition, a Zen priest, a roboticist, a healer, a cyborg anthropologist, a corrections pioneer and an explorer took the stage. Forty-one TEDXs (self-organizing TEDs, of which there are thousands) simulcasted from all over the world, expanding the reach of the conference dramatically.

June says, “Our global community saw TEDWomen as more than a one-time event. The Paley Center and Pat Mitchell organized TEDXWomen independently in 2011 and 2012, and it emerged as an important annual event for many of our TEDX communities. In 2010, we had more than 50 satellite TEDXWomen events; in 2012, there were more than 150! Bear in mind that women do not enjoy equal rights in many of the communities where these TEDX events are held. So TEDXWomen means something quite different in San Francisco than it does in Saudi Arabia.”

Huge efforts have recently been made to increase the number of women speakers on all the TED stages and in the audiences, which, since the program’s inception in 1984, had only inched forward. Currently women make up 35–40 percent of the speakers and the audience. This is remarkable. June says, “Very few conferences achieve these numbers.”

TEDWomen 2010 was a historic event because it presented women en masse as true Gaia figures, unabashed to bare their souls: TED women are all women. TED’s tagline is “Ideas Worth Spreading”—and as these women spread their ideas, the seeds of change are taking root.

HAVE WE COME A LONG WAY, BABY?
As I remember back to the design conferences I attended as a young designer, I am struck that this assembly of women would not have been possible. If there was a woman speaker (and this was rare), she would read from a prepared, humorless text. She would not engage from the stage. Decades later, even though over 70 percent of students in communication design programs are women and 61 percent of working designers are women, we have precious few women leaders in our profession, modeling how design can make a difference, sticking their necks out to effect change.

Gaia was all alone when she birthed the creatures of the Earth. She didn’t ask permission to do this. It was her choice, her sole choice. We see what is happening to our planet, and all the creatures of the world. If a woman has a choice in how to live her life (and many still don’t), isn’t it up to her to make it? ca

Notes
1.  dianeravitch.com
2.  Sheryl Sandberg, in the December 2010 TED Talk “Why we have too few women leaders.”
3.  From the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation.
4.  ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2013/03/12/how-are-powerful-women-perceived/
5.  Pew Research Center reports that now the main earner in 40 percent of households with children is a woman.
http://image.commarts.com/Images1/5/8/3/38500_54_0_MTYyNTQ2OTg1LTE2MjUwMjU1MTk.jpgDK Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.