Can we translate the energy of a TED conference into meaningful systemic change?

At TEDWomen last week, hundreds of women came together to hear truly inspiring stories about bias, discrimination, and why the biggest social issue of our time is women’s equality (at least according to Jimmy Carter — and of course he’s right!).

On my drive home, I reflected on the trailblazers who spoke and the energy they conducted in the room. I too felt stirred, spurred by the sensation that change was at hand. But something about the feeling was half-baked, suspended mid-formation, lacking mobilization. All of us in the room were rallied by stories of change in various sectors, but few know better than we do the statistic that at the rate of this incremental change, women will see parity in 2096. What needs to happen next for that energy to culminate in the tipping point needed to meaningfully move women’s equality forward? What will change between TEDWomen 2015 and TEDWomen 2016?

Maybe my questions come from my own navel gazing over the past two years. In late 2012 I decided to address head on the lack of diverse representation in today’s Fortune 100 organizations. Since then I’ve explored lots of ways to do that. One conclusion I am relatively certain of: talking to women about how they can solve this problem and focus on strategies to change themselves has gotten us where we are now: little progress on shifting the status quo.

I recently heard Karen Ashcraft at NCWIT’s summit describe the idea of “cruel optimism”, a concept pioneered by Lauren Berlant in her 2011 book by the same title. Berlant’s definition:

“A relation of cruel optimism is a double-bind in which your attachment to an object sustains you in life at the same time as that object is actually a threat to your flourishing.”

Ashcraft gave the example of Lean In ideologies and the common critique they receive for displacing the focus on fixing a broken system, instead goading women that if they can stay devoted they can surmount those systems and achieve success.

Her words echoed in my head on my drive as I puzzled through what left me feeling immobilized after my day at TEDWomen.

After chronicling stat after stomach-wrenching stat evidencing the pallid state of human right offenses against women, Jimmy Carter concluded his inspirational talk with a summoning charge. He said yes, women are subject to the worst human rights violations of our time. And then he warned us that men do not care — that it would be the women in that room who are going to be the ones to make change.

The room was rallied, and I too was moved by his remarkable, lucid, bold presence, but I hear in his petition an echo of that directive to women to work harder, lean in closer. I am proud to be a woman who leans in, but more than I am a woman, I am a person, and an engineer that demands disruption. More than we need to rally women about their power and potential, we need total system disruption.

Technology is zeitgeist as a system rather than a passing cultural atmosphere. Software is language embodying action.

We are starting to see real-world solutions in this space, whether that is unconscious bias disruption by our platform or in Everwise’s technology to make mentoring scalable. Technology has the power to crystalize our cultural convictions and proven scientific findings into a reproducible, scalable architecture. Technology is zeitgeist as a system rather than a passing cultural atmosphere. Software is language embodying action. Now we have the opportunity to use technology to translate momentum into systemic change.

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