Claims by women attending the conference depict the conferences as environments that are not safe for women, having an atmosphere of predatory male behaviour that not only exists but is getting worse, according to emails and interviews conducted by the Washington Post.
At least five people, one of whom is a past main stage speaker, spoke with TED officials about being harassed or groped during the organisation's Vancouver conference in April, reports the Washington Post. Nishat Ruiter, general counsel for the non-profit, expressed a need for TED to do a better job of addressing the issue in an email to senior leadership. "We are clearly not doing enough," said Ruiter. In the same email, she reported that she too had been "touched inappropriately but let it go."
In an official statement to the Post, TED acknowledged some incidents. "We did hear from a small number of women attendees at TED2017 about harassment. As a result, two men were immediately disinvited and won’t be returning,” a spokesperson for TED said, adding, “Creating a safe and welcoming environment is critical to the success of our conferences, and we have no tolerance for harassment of any kind," as part of a larger statement explaining that allegations were handled immediately and their code of conduct was updated.
Like all of the industries buckling under the outpouring of allegations of sexual misconduct, this is not a new problem at TED conferences. Former Apple executive and author Nilofer Merchant, whose 2013 TED talk received nearly 3 million views, asserted that the problem existed the year she spoke as well. "The same thing was happening five years ago. It's still happening," said Merchant. "What's different now is we're sharing our stories." In her interview, she recalls her own experience of a man pressing his erection against her while she waited at the bar at a TED conference.
In the emails exchanged between TED owner Chris Anderson, the organisation's director of partnerships Tom Rielly, and others, they discussed ways to address the problem. They kicked around ideas including making an announcement from the stage during the conference, coming up with a formal process to handle complaints, and mentioning the anonymous hotline they created in November 2016. In the emails, Rielly suggested transparency, writing that the first step could be to "admit we have a serious problem."
Large corporate conferences are presented with the complex challenge of how to set standards of behaviour during an event which is a mix of work and socialising, when attendees are not direct employees. Other conferences have handled it in different ways. Solutions run the gambit from more explicit language against harassment in the guidelines for attendees to screening the guest list and revoking invitations when necessary.
The conferences themselves are only one part of the problem TED is facing. It is also facing internal sexual harassment complaints against its managers. A former junior staff member, Jordan Reeves, said that he was harassed by Tom Rielly in 2014. According to Reeves, Rielly told him "incredibly" explicit jokes at work and said that his "ass looked nice" in jeans. In an interview with the Washington Post, Reeves said he wasn't the only one. "I was hearing it from everybody, men and women alike, about misconduct," said Reeves. "It seemed so systematic that I was overwhelmed." After complaining directly to TED owner Chris Anderson and another executive, Reeves posed an ultimatum: either they make systemic changes or he leaves. Reeves claims that Anderson defended Rielly, saying he was only joking and asked him to keep the conversation between them. Reeves gave his notice about six months later.
That same year, TED made a settlement offer for $31,000 (£23,500) to a woman who worked on the company's digital marketing team. Like Reeves, she told TED owner Chris Anderson of her boss repeatedly asking about her sex life. She filed a complaint with TED in May 2014. After the complaint was filed, her boss took her off some accounts she had developed, which she believed to be in retaliation.