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TED talks empire has been grappling with sexual harassment complaints

At least five people, including a past main stage speaker, told TED officials that they were harassed or groped during the organization's flagship conference in Vancouver in April, according to interviews and email correspondence seen by the Washington Post.

Gretchen Carlson
Gretchen CarlsonRead moreRICHARD DREW / AP

SAN FRANCISCO – When Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who now campaigns against sexual harassment, took the stage at a TED event this month, she described 2017 as a tipping point in the fight against workplace misconduct.

But behind the scenes, TED owner Chris Anderson and other senior officials had been grappling with accusations for much of the year that their own conferences, famed for turning short speeches by leading figures into viral videos, had not been a safe place for women – and that the atmosphere of predatory male behavior was getting worse.

At least five people, including a past main stage speaker, told TED officials that they were harassed or groped during the organization's flagship conference in Vancouver in April, according to interviews and email correspondence seen by the Washington Post.

The nonprofit's general counsel Nishat Ruiter said in an April email to TED's senior leadership that she, too, had been "touched inappropriately but let it go." She added she was finding it difficult to believe the issue was being "addressed by TED effectively. We are clearly not doing enough."

In a statement to the Post, TED acknowledged that several incidents had occurred at the Vancouver conference and said it had taken action.

"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," TED said.

TED also said: "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 soon as we heard there were issues at our conference in 2017 we took immediate action to address the specific allegations, then worked with leading experts to upgrade our code of conduct. Today we make the code of conduct extremely clear to all TED conference attendees, and encourage our community to report violations."

In the decades since TED's original owners got the idea of turning 18-minute talks by world leaders, chief executives, academics, artists and others into a business under the slogan "ideas worth spreading," the conferences and spinoff events have become known as a meeting place for the global elite, particularly leaders in the technology industry. The Sapling Foundation, Anderson's private foundation, acquired TED in 2001.

The gatherings are regarded as a place where the likes of former Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates, scientist Richard Dawkins and former vice president Al Gore could be encountered in the hallways, and the organization's talks have been watched online more than 1 billion times worldwide.

Most people pay $10,000 to attend and must apply for tickets.

The Post reviewed email exchanges among senior TED officials at the time of the April conference, sparked by a complaint by a longtime attendee, who complained of sexual harassment and being offered "every drug known to man." The problem was so bad that the woman decided to pack her bags and leave, telling Anderson that it would be her last TED conference.

Anderson forwarded the complaint to his leadership team, saying, "I don't want to overstate what's here (until we can find more) but I do think we'll need to think seriously about what more we can do."

Tom Rielly, the organization's director of partnerships whose satirical monologues are the traditional closing event of the conferences, wrote in response that harassment had occurred in past years.

"I'm afraid as difficult as it is to talk about, experiences like this have been going on for years, to varying degrees," Rielly wrote. "I agree this is absolutely heartbreaking and stomach turning." He also suggested that alcohol could be fueling the misconduct.

Ruiter, the general counsel, said that she had heard of more such incidents at this year's conference.

"I heard from so many women unprompted about the type of advances that were everywhere, and that felt 'different' from years past," Ruiter wrote. "This included a TED Prize winner and two TEDsters who spoke to me about this and more than one staff member."

Ruiter then quoted complaints she had heard from other women at the conference.

"I was literally jumped on, grabbed, and held," Ruiter wrote. "Guys are taking major liberties."

And it went on. "Don't say anything . . . but please change this," one woman pleaded with Ruiter, according to the email she sent to her colleagues.

TED did not make Anderson, Rielly or Ruiter available for interviews. The three did not respond to personal inquiries.

Nilofer Merchant, an author and former Apple executive whose 2013 TED talk received nearly 3 million views, said in an interview that sexual harassment is not a new problem for the TED conferences.

"The same thing was happening five years ago. It's still happening," she said. "What's different now is we're sharing our stories."

At the April conference, Merchant said, a longtime attendee pressed his erection against her at a bar. She recalls mouthing to her friend who was nearby: Help me.

"In this awkward moment, you're trying not to make it an issue," she said in an interview. "I'm trying to spend my time at TED, which I paid $10,000 to attend, talking to people about ideas and not worry about the guy with his boner pressed against me."

Merchant said she saw the same man approach two of her friends, who were talking to a TED newcomer in her early 20s, and say, "Oh, three black women together. What should I do with that?"

She reported the incidents to TED officials. She said she was only told Thursday that the man she had reported had been banned.

In their email exchanges, Anderson, Rielly and others discussed ways to address such problems, including whether to make an announcement from the stage about an anonymous hotline, created in November of 2016, that would forward complaints to TED leadership.

They discussed communicating a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment of attendees, creating clear guidelines and penalties for behaviors that constitute harassment, and coming up with a formal process to handle complaints.

The TED officials also expressed worries about the complaints becoming public.

"It seems 51 percent chance or more that there will be at least social media posts about the issue if not articles (What is our response)," Rielly wrote.

Still, Rielly also wrote that the first step to addressing the issue could be to "Admit we have a serious problem."

TED told the Post that in November 2016 it had inserted language to its code of conduct for attendees that specifically prohibited harassment "in any form" and added a reporting process for incidents. In the summer, TED included additional language that banned "sexual harassment of any kind, including unwelcome sexual attention and inappropriate physical contact." It also began to promote the policy actively to attendees, mentioning it from the stage.

Big corporate conferences, including TED, present a particular challenge in setting standards of appropriate behavior because of the blend of work and socializing and because attendees are not direct employees.

In Silicon Valley, such events are seen as crucial to cultivating relationships that could lead to business deals. TED says its conferences are for "high-level relationship building," and forbid direct sales pitches.

Jess Ladd, a TED fellow and founder of Callisto, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting sexual assault, said conferences often involve alcohol and off-site networking, which can open the door to improper interactions.

"If your boss harasses you, you know you can go to HR," she said. "But if it's a powerful investor or an academic in your field, it's really hard to know what to do and what your options are."

Conferences approach the problem in different ways. The World Economic Forum's annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, said it screens attendees who are not heads of state or chief executives, and revokes invitations if it learns of misconduct.

Some conferences have been updating their policies in light of recent high-profile sexual harassment scandals.

Summit, which attracts an elite technology industry crowd, updated its sexual harassment policy this year to include language that explicitly bans "unwelcome sexual attention," "inappropriate physical contact" and "sexual images in public spaces."

South by Southwest, the annual gathering in Austin, referred a reporter to its code of conduct, which does not specifically mention a ban on sexual harassment by attendees (it bans harassment of all kinds). On its website, DEF CON publishes a similar code of conduct. The Aspen Ideas Festival said it has no published harassment policy for attendees, but it encourages staff to report incidents.

Internally, TED also has faced sexual harassment complaints against its own managers.

Jordan Reeves, a former junior staffer, said in an interview that while he was working at the organization, he was harassed by Rielly in 2014. Rielly told him "incredibly" explicit jokes at work and told him that his "ass looked nice" in jeans.

"I was hearing from everybody, men and women alike, about misconduct," Reeves said. "It seemed so systemic that I was overwhelmed."

Reeves said he complained about the incidents to Anderson and another executive, telling them that "if things don't change systemically I'm going to leave."

Anderson replied that Rielly was only joking and asked Reeves to keep the conversation between them, according to Reeves.

Reeves, who said he cried during the meeting, gave notice about six months later.

TED said in its response: "There was indeed an unhappy staff departure in 2014, but it's not correct that the situation was not investigated. We believe it was dealt with appropriately."

In 2014, TED offered to settle a sexual harassment case with a young woman who worked on one of the organization's digital marketing teams for about $31,000, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.

The woman's lawyer told Anderson that the woman's boss had repeatedly asked her about her sex life, according to a May 2014 complaint she filed to TED, which was obtained by the Post.

After she reported the misconduct, her boss took her off some accounts she had developed – a move she saw as retaliatory, according to the complaint. That document also alleges that TED had initially asked her to keep working under her boss.

TED did not comment on the settlement.

The accusations against TED come at a time when allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men are roiling Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Congress.

The heightened awareness of sexual misconduct in the workplace and other professional settings was sparked in part by Carlson, who reached a $20 million settlement with Fox in 2016 after suing her old boss Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.

"Right now is the tipping point," Carlson said at the TEDWomen conference in New Orleans this month, choking up at points throughout her 14-minute speech. "We are watching history happen. More and more women are coming forward and saying, 'Enough is enough.' "

The conversation between the leadership of TED in April was set off by an email from Brooke Hammerling, the founder of Brew Media Relations.

On April 27, as the annual conference was underway in Vancouver, she wrote an email to Anderson, saying she had felt "fearful as a female" at the event and had decided to leave a day early.

"This is my last TED," she wrote, according to the messages viewed by the Post.

"I was told by different people many married that for example I was hot, my figure was awesome, did I sleep with" – she named a technology celebrity – "and I was asked why I wasn't married because I was 'hot' so should be able to land a dude," Hammerling wrote. "I was offered every drug known to man . . . I was pushed. Literally pushed."

"Wow, this just about made me throw up," Anderson responded.

After Anderson told Rielly about Hammerling's complaint, Rielly told the TED leadership team that Brooke is a "great person" whom he knows has experienced unwanted attention in the past.

"If she left it must've been really bad," Rielly wrote.

In an interview Friday, Hammerling said: "I was really uncomfortable and disturbed by it, as were other women who were in the vicinity."

She praised the initial response by Anderson as "wonderful" and said she had been reimbursed for her attendance.

"He was upset about it and responded to me immediately," she said. "We got together on the phone, and I gave them my suggestions."

After that: "I never heard anything," she said.

"TED it is meant to be a different experience," Hammerling said. "It's meant to be a collective of thoughtful people who have taken time – at great expense – to learn and expand, to be part of something really beautiful. It's supposed to be a safe environment."