Study: TED Conference's 'Most Inpired Thinkers' Overwhelmingly Men

The popular speaker series may not be as progressive as it claims.

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Almost three fourths of all TED speakers are male.

TED, the nonprofit conference behemoth that's "devoted to ideas worth spreading" and operates as "a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers" is overwhelmingly dominated by high ranking male academics, according to a new demographic analysis of presenters on the site.

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"The majority of academic presenters were senior faculty, males, from United States-based institutions, were visible online and were cited more frequently than average for their field," according to a study published by researchers at Indiana University.

Overall, of the 998 TED presenters analyzed by the study, 73 percent were male. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Harvard University and the University of Oxford were the most commonly represented universities. Of the presenters with a university affiliation, 73 percent were senior-level professors, the rest were assistant professors, adjuncts or otherwise lower-ranking academics.

Cassidy Sugimoto, author of the study, says it's disconcerting that a group that says it's represents the newest, innovative ideas is recruiting mainly established scientists and speakers.

"In recruiting speakers, they're getting senior, elite, male academics. I'd question their composition. Do they really have the innovative, cutting-edge people they think they have?" Sugimoto says. "Are they really seeking diversity in their presenters?"

Since launching as a conference in 1984, TED has become increasingly popular in recent years. Its YouTube videos have racked up more than a billion views and the group now hosts conferences on topics such as "de-extinction," urban planning, health care and dozens of other issues. Presenters include Bill Gates, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

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Requests by U.S. News for comment from TED officials were not returned, and Sugimoto says the group has not responded to her research.

There are indications that TED has tried to diversify its speakers. In 2010, the group hosted TEDWomen, a "cross-disciplinary, cross-generational program will focus on how women think and work, communicate and collaborate, learn and lead -- what this means and why it matters to all of us." Of the last 36 TED talks posted to its website, 12 were presented by women.

But TED may not be as ground breaking a thought factory as it claims. Sugimoto found that researchers who had given TED talks were already highly cited in their fields and saw no uptick in the frequency of citation in their fields after giving the talks.

"The people doing this, they're already well-recognized in their fields," Sugimoto says. "They're known quantities."

But the talks are clearly striking a nerve with the American public, with high school teachers now commonly assigning their students to watch videos of TED talks as homework.

"The good story is that people are watching these. People want scientific information and they like receiving it this way," Sugimoto says. "It's successful in the form of science popularization."

 

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