Personal Democracy Forum 2011: Women Out in Front

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Being at a tech conference that was 50% women speakers felt different. When the women get up on stage and talk about concepts I don’t understand, I know things are shifting. At Personal Democracy Forum 2011 (PDF) in New York City the ratio of female to male speakers was 47% to 53%. PDF is a forum where activists, intellectuals and policymakers from all over the world gather to explore the digital age’s impact on governance and society.

The parade of thinkers, revolutionaries and world-crafters was as diverse as those who are leading change. And honestly, I believe it was women’s role in the uprisings in the Middle East this spring that inspired such diversity at this year’s conference in lower Manhattan. This doesn’t mean to sugarcoat the events or outcomes in the Middle East, but to acknowledge the very true public role of women there.

Senator Gillibrand

(Credit Image: © Pete Marovich/ZUMAPRESS.com)


Because the medium is the message, we need to always look critically at who is up on the big stage driving discussion at major conferences. It's who you see who sets the agenda, and if you have worked in the technology or media space for some time, you know that a constant refrain from producers is, “I wanted to invite more women, but I just couldn’t find them.” 

Even the inimitable Kara Swisher just wrote “about how all the often touchy-feely men entrepreneurs of the hottest Web 2.0 companies ha[ve] a glaring problem. While most of them have women as a majority of their customers, they could not seem to find even one qualified woman for any of their boards. This makes it a struggle even in programming our D: All Things Digital conferences. We have featured almost every significant female tech exec we could.”  

At the PDF Conference, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was the most senior U.S. elected official to speak. Senator Gillibrand spoke to the crowd about her commitment to using the Internet to make politicians (including herself) more accountable to voters. Amid other speakers’ vivid snapshots of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Senator Gillibrand referred to the drive for more transparency in the U.S. Congress as "a quiet touch of revolution." For example, Gillibrand will publish her Federal Election Commission campaign finance disclosures online, in easily searchable electronic format. She also put all her earmark requests online so voters can see what money she is requesting.
Gillibrand drew praise from the Sunlight Foundation's Ellen Miller for voluntary disclosures she makes already, including her schedule of official meetings, voting record, and federal funding requests.

New York’s Junior Senator also touched on the issue of accessibility. She said we need to make sure all Americans have access to the internet, and she is working on increasing funding for rural broadband access.

Gillibrand is 44, not quite a Digital Native but of the generation that recognizes digital issues are paramount to American competitiveness and that Internet facility and access are key. It’s a far cry from a highlight of the conference in 2008, when digital strategist Tracy Russo asked of then presidential-candidate John McCain “how can a person who doesn’t know how to operate a computer be the kind of leader we need to move us forward and fulfill the potential all of our tomorrows hold?”

Three years later, in the aftermath of the economic collapse, the revolutions in the Middle East and social media’s role in each, I can’t imagine a viable U.S. leader admitting, as McCain did, that he doesn’t “really do computers” (insert Anthony Weiner comparison here). 

Indeed, the most surprising refrain coming from the international women and men speaking at PDF, people who’d recently risked their lives in Tahrir Square and Tunis and Nigeria was, “Why no revolution in the U.S.”? Their subtext was: “We accept that only 30% of our population has good Internet access, or a way to hold government accountable, or a voice. But you in America? You should not accept the same.”

Here is where women in front come in. There is lots of data that women legislators are more honest. They pass more inclusive and crucial legislation. Companies with women in charge perform better. And yet, time after time, the meetings where major political, policy and innovation agendas are set do not feature women. This was a huge issue at Davos this year, with quotas finally being established. 

I felt the PDF Conference contributors worked towards accountability in their own right – via holding themselves accountable to put together a conference with many women as men on the big stage.

.In a quiet touch of revolution, innovators here in the US. are using social media to make event and media producers accountable. From the Women’s Media Center to http://changetheratio.tumblr.com/ and PrettyLittleHead.com online activists are using blogs and hashtagging to literally provide the names of qualified women to speak at tech and innovation events. Literally stealing the excuses away from event producers. And this is not a small change.

Senator Gillibrand, too, has launched a website that encourages women to come “off the sidelines” and enter civic life. I asked Gillibrand why she launched the site now, and she said it’s because we’re actually going backwards in terms of the numbers of women in elected office. One hopes, too, the aftermath of Weinergate will show a public thirst for more women in office, given the serious work that needs to be done and women’s lower susceptibility to sexual peccadilloes.

The web is changing everything on a macro level -- from Egypt to Tunisia to Wikileaks and the ability of big corporations to shut it down. We’re trackable, sourceable, spammable, sextable, every minute of our lives. It is our responsibility to use the positive power of social media to make those with power accountable and make ourselves heard.

Every social media power user I know was obsessed with what happened in the Arab Spring. Maybe now we should be engaging more firmly as citizens of our own state. 

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