I recently returned from the TED Women 2015 Momentum conference in Monterey, California. In my view, the most striking theme of TED Women, was not “momentum,” but rather, the implicit and recurring demonstration of empathy.
Having attended every TED Women event to date (and having hosted one at Google a few years ago), I can say with confidence this year there was a deeper, underlying expression of human empathy. We were choosing to truly be with another person, to hear their stories with our hearts and to let our differences unite us. It was inspiring.
Even when an attendee (and friend of mine) was told to leave because she was nursing her infant, it was followed by an uproar. The organizers, to their credit, rapidly worked to rectify the situation and examine whether TED policies were themselves empathizing with the needs and realities of the TED community.
Empathy was also expressed by Rana el Kaliouby, an emotions analytics expert and co-founder of Affectiva. The company’s technology helps computers recognize human emotion, providing a wide range of emotionally intelligent applications in digital environments. Nonny de la Pena, a pioneer of Virtual Reality, is designing stories whose narrative and experiential effects create intense, empathic engagement with the viewer.
But TED Women wasn’t just about tech. It celebrated women and empathy across industries, figures historical and contemporary.
Sheroes past and present were paid homage during TED Women. From the conversation about female friendship with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, to the grace and poetry of Robin Morgan, the beauty of the female experience was profound. Billie Jean King, former World No. 1 professional tennis player, Founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the model of women’s advancement in professional sports, is building upon her contribution and legacy in getting Title IX legislation passed that ensures equal investment for women and girls in academic institutions. Now she is focused on transforming leadership models to celebrate and promote greater diversity.
The wise Sakena Yacoobi, who held her own against the threats from Taliban warlords, gave another lesson in empathy in recounting her experience with the young, armed, males at the border crossing in Afghanistan. When these border guards demanded that she get out of her car and speak with them, it was clear that all they knew was guns and violence. She realized that though education for girls is a universal need, if these programs do not address the boys as well, if they are left out of education, then violence may be the only path available to them. Those same guards now work for and with her, protecting the students and the staff and helping her reach the build schools that thrive.
“The number one abuse of human rights on Earth is the mistreatment of women and girls.”
President Jimmy Carter shared a powerful perspective on the root causes of the worst human rights violations of our century. He described three main causes:
- First, the misinterpretation of holy texts to legitimize the subjugation of women and put men in positions of institutional power leads to systemic persecution and abuse of women worldwide. President Carter challenged others to change these practices: not to subjugate women, but to exalt them, and to reinterpret holy texts, echoing his decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention.
- Next, violence fuels many other forms of human rights violations. Women are disproportionately victims of violence, and this fact reflects a cycle of oppression that violates other human rights. Crucially, this happens everywhere: sexual violence—not only in areas of geopolitical unrest but on college campuses nationwide, human trafficking (80% of victims are women), sexual assault in the military, and domestic abuse are examples of everyday violence against women around the world.
- Finally, apathy, particularly among men, is the most insidious purveyor of women’s rights violations. According to President Carter, many men simply do not care about the extreme injustices that women endure. The opposite of empathy, apathy arises from the position that the average man does not care (or care enough) to foster change, especially when they benefit from the current situation.
Memory Banda, a leader in establishing Malawi’s successful national campaign to outlaw child marriage, described her journey of changing the marrying age from as young as 11 years old to 18. A mighty spokesperson for the rights of girls, Memory helped institute a ban on sexual initiation practices in villages by working with village chiefs and overturning harmful cultural norms. She read a poem from a young girl that sounded the warrior cry “I will Marry When I Want!”
Former Irish President Mary Robinson‘s talk highlighted the human face of climate change, and showed the severity of its effects upon the world’s most vulnerable populations. President Robinson’s side by side comparison of two different countries’ emissions levels and GDP drove the point home: the nations most responsible for climate change are not ones suffering from its devastation. Women are especially disadvantaged when climate issues arise, as traditional gender dynamics are linked to the risk factors and survival challenges associated with proximity, exposure, and limited ability or resources to respond to climate change impacts. Robinson appealed to us to be empathetic and take our place on the right side of history.
An environment brimming with transformative ideas and personal stories, TED Women was a safe space for the full expression of the female experience and I am filled with gratitude for the care and attention of the team who elegantly wove these stories and for the community that came together.