A Room With a View — and Baby Too

So much right has happened here.

Right? How could it possibly be right to tell a working mom of an infant that she can’t attend TEDWomen, a conference meant to empower girls and women all over the world? Well, that part isn’t okay at all, but everything that followed afterward sets a new model for conflict resolution.

As she wrote here, author Jessica Jackley brought her 5-month-old baby to the TEDWomen conference in Monterey, California. TED doesn’t allow children under the age of 16 in its audiences, but Jackley was nursing and hoped for reasonable accommodations.

I’m working on a new business for brand-new first-time working mothers, and many of the women I’ve interviewed have expressed their complete and utter anxiety about having to travel for their jobs while breastfeeding an infant. Like many such moms, Jackley opted to bring her baby with her, probably nursing ‘round clock just as she does at home. Believe me, if given the option of a whole night’s sleep in a comfortable hotel room without their baby, most mothers would jump at the opportunity. (At the very least, imagine their productivity and energy the next day.) But Jackley likely feared that being away from the baby and pumping breastmilk would affect her milk supply negatively. Or she couldn’t afford to bring another caregiver with her. Or she didn’t trust on-site babysitters with her newborn. Or she just plain wanted her kid with her. Doesn’t actually matter: All of these reasons are valid.

Baby and mom were told by the registration staff that they couldn’t attend and Jackley packed up her (many, baby-gear-filled) bags and left, but not before Tweeting her outrage.

And here, in my opinion, is where things really could have gone terribly wrong. Jackley could have started a social media war. Instead, she did what a very wise woman (my mom; hi, Mom!) always told me to do whenever you want to win an argument: Talk about your feelings. After all, no one can ever tell you that your own feelings are wrong. Jackley wrote that she was “confused,” giving TED the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to respond. Ten minutes later, she Tweeted that she was “sad” and that she loves TED and TEDWomen and was just “bummed to leave.” I honestly doubt she was being calculated in using this gentle approach, but it worked. And TED brass responded in kind. Literally kindly. They rushed to make accommodations, throwing together a viewing room for parents with children. June Cohen, the executive producer of TED Media, invited Jackley back and opened the room to other parents in need. And the TED blog posted a very transparent response, citing their mistake, and explaining how it had happened. Admittedly, it seems the registration team hadn’t been trained (or empowered) to deal with this kind of nuance.

I read Jackley’s account (and the Mashable coverage, and the TED blog post) and cheered. To be clear, I never would say that a woman should pussyfoot around these issues — scream loud and clear if screaming is necessary — but Jackley’s approach probably worked better in the moment than waging a hot-tempered battle would have. She gave TED an opportunity to fix a problem that had been an oversight, not a flagrant misdeed.

Women do not help women by waging war against each other. Women help women by pointing out inequities and offering to be part of the solution. Women help women by setting an example of kindness and understanding at the highest levels. (Guaranteed, the most junior staffers at next year’s TED conference will know who to go to if and when their own moral compasses start to spin in search of North.) Women help women by being unafraid to speak up…and smart enough to do it in the way that’s most likely to be heard.