A nursing mother was kicked out of TED’s big conference about women for bringing her baby

Grown-ups only.
Grown-ups only.
Image: Stacie McChesney / TED
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

San Francisco

Last week, a mother with her baby daughter was ejected from TEDWomen, the conference created to champion powerful, working women and girls.

At TED’s annual event for women in San Francisco, the longstanding policy is “grown ups only,” with a minimum age of 14. The exclusive ideas forum behind those TED Talks takes undivided attention very seriously, creating deeply designed, distraction-free experiences for high-powered attendees who pay up to $2,495 to soak in inspiration. Electronic devices are also banned from the main theater, where thought leaders such as US congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, activist actor Ashley Judd, MacArthur “genius” grant winning architect Jeanne Gang and three-time paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols spoke.

TED’s baby ban was put to test last year, after a hailstorm of criticism followed the barring of one mother from the viewing area. The scorned mother, KIVA co-founder Jessica Jackley, tweeted about the incident to her 14,ooo followers:

This year was supposed to be different. In an Oct 5 email to the 1,121 registered attendees for TEDWomen 2016, organizers sent a list of options for nursing mothers. They offered a lactation room; a coupon for discounted breast milk shipping; referrals to three local nanny agencies and even a free pass to the TEDWomen talks archive for caregivers. Kelly Stoetzel, TED’s content director, explains they’re testing mom-friendly accommodations at TEDWomen and plan to implement similar measures at future events. The baby ban, however, remains in place.

Attendee Liza Morris brought her three-and-a-half month old daughter to TEDWomen this year. “When you have a baby this young, it’s not really a choice,” she says, adding that she missed a reminder email about TED’s no-baby policy. On the first day of the conference, says the Washington, DC-based communication consultant, fellow attendees were ”lovely,” offering help with doors and diaper bags. Some stopped to say hello to the quiet infant.

But on Oct. 27, the second day of the three-day conference, a TED staffer and a security guard approached Morris and her daughter, and escorted them out of the venue. Even as they were being removed, speakers were talking about or flashing images of cute babies, and a lactation researcher Katie Hinde delivered a speech about the emotional and psychological importance of mothers’ milk.

“In 15 years of scholarship, the most important thing that I’ve learned is that we don’t do enough to support mothers and babies,” said Hinde. It was a powerful talk that Morris didn’t hear—because she was in the lobby considering how she could get on an earlier flight back to DC.

Organizers say that some attendees complained of seeing the infant on premises.

“I told Liza we want to be supportive of all attendees, but we realize not everyone will be happy with the policy,” say Stoetzel who sought out Morris immediately after the incident. A few minutes after Morris was removed, another staffer gave her the option of a TV screen in the lactation room or a viewing area in a nearby hotel suite.

Katie Hinde at TEDWomen 2016
Katie Hinde at TEDWomen 2016
Image: Marla Aufmuth / TED

Unlike Jackley, Morris didn’t rally for support on social media. She says that she understood TED’s position, though she’s never had a problem with babies at simulcast viewing areas in TEDx events. (TEDx is a community-led TED-like event, in which organizers can make up their own rules about audience attendance.)

“It’s never even occurred to me that I couldn’t take my baby. If I had been aware [of TED’s policy], I certainly would have tried to cancel. But I have to clarify that when I have a child at a venue, I will never let her disturb anyone,” she adds. Morris eventually settled into the lactation room for the rest of the day, a narrow, windowless space behind the simulcast viewing area, made tighter by the venue’s upright piano stored there.

Kim, the pup, at TEDWomen.
Kim, the pup, at TEDWomen.

She was later appalled to spot a dog allowed into the TED viewing area, while she and her baby remained exiled in a makeshift backroom. Kim, a small mix breed, was the service dog of one attendee, TED confirmed to Quartz. But allowing the dog and barring a nursing mother and child raised a sobering reflection on the kinds of “disruptions” Americans allow in the workplace for health reasons.

In an age of telecommuting, timezone-variant meeting schedules and dwindling number of spaces for quiet, focused work, the borders between work and life can be very fuzzy—and sometimes deliberately so. “When I was pregnant with my first child four years ago, I saw my friend take her one-year old baby [to a similar event]. “Thinking back, it was quite an inspiration to me, knowing that you still get out and have a life when you have a child,” says Morris.

In 2013, more than one-third of new moms in the US took no formal leave at all, according to a National Center for Health Statistics report. In Europe, some high-profile politicians bring their kids along rather than miss out on work: In 2013, Italy’s representative to the European Union Licia Ronzulli took her one-month old infant to cast a vote, while last month, Iceland’s Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir delivered statements to parliament while nursing her baby.

As an influential forum that champions new thinking to improve conditions for all, TED could model how to be smarter about accommodating mothers who want to work—especially at a gathering for women. Perhaps there won’t be a need to pit the needs of a mother against the needs of the 1,210 other audience members if we design more intentional spaces for these ultimate multi-taskers. Could organizers, for instance, prepare an equally innovative and stimulating maternity lounge experience with relevant tech and design breakthroughs—from MIT-designed breast pumps, to genius baby toys, infant wearables, or “smart cribs“—that promise to shush fussy infants instantly?

In the words of Hinde, “It’s time we abandon simple solutions and simple slogans and grapple with the nuance.”