Do women’s voices matter?

When we’re holding up examples of brilliance, does it matter which examples we choose? I think so. Apparently, the TED Radio Hour does not.

Like a Netflix junkie caught up on House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, I’ve been craving my next high. A friend turned me on to podcasts. Serial, to be precise. I devoured it. When the second season was released – I waited until all the episodes were available so I could sink into binge-y delight with it, too. But I needed more. On my daily walks recently, I began scanning my podcast library furiously for a fix. I found a few duds, a few surprises, and a lot of A-for-effort small batch productions out on the frontier of this fascinating medium.

And then I tuned in to the NPR TED Radio Hour. I recognized host Guy Raz’s voice immediately. I’ve heard a few great TED talks over the years. So I downloaded a bunch of episodes and rejoiced that my walks would again have some purpose.

The rejoicing was short lived. As I listened, I started feeling something … familiar. An annoyance. An itch. Something just beneath the surface you just can’t quite scratch.

This is a show self-described as “based on riveting TED-talks from the world’s most remarkable minds.” The emphasis there is all mine. The concept is that Guy and his team cull the TED world for the very best and most brilliant idea makers out there, and bring them to you in a tight, one hour symphony of interview and epic snippets.

The trouble was, I rarely heard women’s voices. Maybe it’s just this episode, this topic, I thought. Each time. And so I started listening to them all.

Obsessed, I sat down a few days ago to analyze the show. Of the 10 most recent TED Radio Hour episodes, women represented only 21% of speakers highlighted. One in five. In two episodes, there were no women speakers at all, and there were no instances of women-only episodes. In not one single episode was a woman the first speaker highlighted. Not one. She always appears later – like an afterthought, an antidote, an alternative.

This is funny, in that “this is not funny at all” kind of a way, because half the planet is female. Sure, we’re woefully underrepresented in the board room, the court room, elected office, and just about everywhere else that power resides. Apparently, we’re also invisible when guys like Guy go looking for the world’s most remarkable minds.

I’ve set up a fun little dashboard to track these stats. I now anxiously await each week’s episode in hopes Guy will pull the rug out from under me. He hasn’t yet. And maybe it’s not his fault. Maybe it’s just slim pickings from the TED archives. After all, he didn’t set the stage, he merely decided where to point the spotlight.

But what are we saying when we declare only 1 of 5 of the world’s most remarkable minds belong to women? What are we telling girls when we’re driving in our cars, and we choose to listen to the TED Radio Hour on NPR? “Hey girls, listen to these remarkable men on the radio! Shhhhhh. Aren’t they brilliant? When you grow up, you’re going to have so many amazing opportunities to listen to men’s remarkable and brilliant ideas! Oh yeah, I think there’s a lady whose going to talk, too, but we’re home now, so I guess we’ll just have to miss her. I’m sure whatever she had to say couldn’t have been that important.

I think it matters. To whom we hand the microphone. Where we shine the spotlight. What we edit, and how we produce. It matters, because in curating remarkableness, we’re shaping people’s ideas of what kind of person is remarkable – and what kind of person is not.

By the way, Guy’s next project is another NPR podcast called How I Built This, in which he promises to feature “innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.” I have high hopes for gender equity in this next venture, because I’m an idealist. Or a damn fool.  Either way, I’ll be listening. At least in the beginning.

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Megan M

Lawyer. Strategist. Rabblerouser.

8 thoughts on “Do women’s voices matter?”

  1. You, my friend, are a voice we need to hear often. Thank you for writing this. You are remarkable and brilliant. Your voice and our voices matter, and we should never be an afterthought. Actually, we should be ruling the world! If we were, I’m convinced it would be a much more civil place where meaningful progress is made as a matter of course.

  2. This has my already overworked mind going into overtime. I just another woman that she was “pretty” and I can’t help but wonder did I just set us woman back fifty years? Why are questions about marriage and kids still the main ways we define success for women. I think people still have this image of women as being homemakers. Religion also sets women back. Here is the point that I think and hope will not get lost when we talk about gender equality we cannot forget to talk about racial equality. Because there is a young Black and brown girl who is also looking to hear/see someone that is like her.

  3. Thank you, D!

    To your last point, I can only say, Amen! You’re absolutely right. As we lift women’s voices, we must lift the voices of women of color. These aren’t mutually exclusive causes. With this blog experiment, I hope also to dive into issues of race and intersectionality, which means I’ll have lots of stretching and learning to do.

    To your first point, I am going to go out on a limb and say you didn’t set anybody back by calling a woman pretty. It’s validating to be noticed by other women.

  4. Hi Megan,

    Thanks for this post. I wish I could show you how hard we try to have gender balance on the program. I wish you could see our commitment to making this happen every week and why we don’t always succeed. But none of that matters. We always have to work harder. Thanks for this post. It’s important. Its a really important reminder. I’m always happy to talk more. contact me tedradiohour@npr.org

    –Guy Raz

    PS: Though we have to do better…here are some shows where most or all the voices (besides mine of course) were women:

    http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/368757408/courage

    http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/384949524/the-unknown-brain

    And here is a new show we’ve launched this week on entrepreneurs. We open with the story of Sarah Blakely:

    http://www.npr.org/series/490248027/how-i-built-this

    1. Thank you for replying, Guy. It means a lot that you took the time to read this. And indeed, I jumped for joy this morning hearing the intro story with Sara Blakeley. More, please!

  5. Thanks Megan! Brilliantly written. My favorite professor at Berkeley, June Jordan, was at the time the most published African American woman in the United States. During a lecture, she told the class, “you don’t even know the sound of your own voice.” I’ve never forgotten that statement, or many of her other lessons. Thank you for shining the spotlight and being a beacon yourself! It’s really shameful how bias silences so many. We are rising and we are raising our voices and uplifting humanity in the process. Big love to you!

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