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Last week, several colleagues and I had the fortune to attend the 2020 TEDWomen conference. Held virtually with attendees from Cambodia to Copenhagen, Sri Lanka to Seattle, Tasmania to Toronto, the conference featured content, speakers and programming focused on women-oriented themes including gender issues and reproductive health.

In the midst of a global pandemic, we are all finding new and innovative ways to connect, share and inspire. TEDWomen met that challenge – and exceeded it.  For this year’s annual conference, TEDWomen partnered with five TEDx events from around the world to each curate a talk featured as part of the day’s agenda. The bulk of the day’s agenda, however, centered on women who shared their perspectives, personal stories, and calls to action.

Bringing “Fearless” Human Stories to Life 

Attendees connected virtually to enjoy a full day of speakers and panel discussions featuring women astronauts, entrepreneurs, elected officials, scientists, executives and artists. Panel discussions allowed attendees to interact with speakers and innovative programming featured performances by women poets, singers, musicians, aerialists and dancers from across the world – each with a powerful statement aligned with this year’s conference theme: Fearless.

To help introduce this theme, housewife-turned politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya described her campaign and the fallout she experienced from her run against Belarus’s long-time autocratic leader in this year’s presidential election. Her talk, “How to be fearless in the face of authoritarianism” demonstrated how the resilience of one person alone can fan the flame of protest, leading to a massive national movement pushing for democracy. 

During her session, Tsikhanouskaya offered a “meditation on the link between fearlessness and freedom, reminding us that we all have what it takes to stand up to injustice—we just need to do it together.”

Violence Against Women Is a Pandemic All on Its Own

As I listened to speaker after speaker and watched truly moving performances, I was—as I would imagine many in the audience were—brought to a halt when we were all faced with what Kemi Dasilva-Ibru shared. 

According to the United Nations Women report, “The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19”, “One in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner. Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.”

As founder of Women At Risk Network, Dasilva-Ibru is committed to “a unique holistic method of tackling Gender Based Violence through the development and implementation of a series of initiatives, targeting both the intervention/treatment of these affected women, as well as providing preventive measures in education and community service to reduce the high incidence.”

Violence against women is a pandemic all its own, and one which has only intensified this year. Awareness alone isn’t enough. “I want business and world leaders to check their mic and check their privilege,” Dasilva-Ibru stated—placing the responsibility firmly on all our hands to pay attention, raise awareness and offer support however possible to mitigate the often unseen but equally disastrous global pandemic of gender-based violence. 

As the day rounded out, Grammy-nominated singer Kesha provided a powerful performance of her song “Shadow”—which she described as “all about refusing to let the negativity of others darken your skies and the power of fearless perseverance.”

Defining Feminism and Challenging the World

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem anchored a conversation with event moderators, To future generations of women, you are the roots of change.”  Steinem’s core message implored us all to recognize the fundamental need for intersectionality as a lens by which we must view everything in order to combat prejudice and injustice. When asked “What inspires you?” – without a beat, Steinem responded “other women” and when posed the question “what is feminism?” she jokingly responded she often referred people to the dictionary.

For reference, the Merriam-Webster definition of “feminism” reads: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” 

As a man attending this conference, I was curious when the moderator asked her, “So… where are men in all this?” To which, Steinem replied, “Hopefully, manning up” to be feminists in their own right, demonstrating allyship and solidarity to combat systemic gender bias wherever it threatens equality.

This conference was a day filled with moving, inspirational, and sometimes heart-wrenching stories from fearless women from all walks of life. While I can’t speak for all men, the simple act of listening to the perspectives of these women reinforced my own commitment to feminism, to being fearless in the face of oppression, and for being an ally whenever possible.

While TEDWomen highlighted stories of triumph and challenge in pursuing gender equality, this event also emphasized the need for people and organizations to build and support diverse and inclusive work experiences for all people, regardless of age, race, or gender. 

To learn more about how you can improve gender equality at work, read this article on 4 Actions Leaders Can Take to Improve Gender Equality.