The role of gender in innovation

men-vs-women-jpg1Achieving gender based equality in the workplace has been an agenda item for many organizations and campaigners for some time, and whilst I have generally speaking trumpeted the virtues of having an intellectually diverse workforce rather than a diverse workforce on identity issues, there have nonetheless been gradual moves towards greater identity equality in our workplaces.

In The Difference Scott Page highlights four things needed for diversity to come into its own.

  1. The problem needs to be tough enough that no single person will always come up with a solution
  2. The team members need to have some intelligence in the general area of the problem
  3. The team members need to be able to incrementally improve solutions to the problem
  4. The team needs to be large enough to have a genuinely diverse talent pool

Central to this is a shared purpose, to ensure of course that all members of the group are working towards a common goal, albeit perhaps via different means.  This was the finding of a study published in the Academy of Management earlier this year.

Despite the work of people such as Scott Page however, there does remain a feeling that men and women can approach work in a slightly different fashion.  Earlier this year for instance, I wrote about a paper that showed how the sexes tended to approach creative tasks.  The paper looked at eight tasks that broadly speaking go into supporting innovation in the workplace, and then assessed managers against each of those eight tasks.

The bad news is that generally speaking managers were pretty awful in at least six of the eight areas, with provision of feedback and encouragement a particular source of shame.  What was particularly interesting however is that female managers outscored their male counterparts in every single one of the areas, which is rather interesting.

A paper, published recently by the University of Nordland, looks at things from an industrial perspective, and asks whether new ideas and innovations tend to emerge more in male dominated industries or not.

“Society desperately needs innovation and creative entrepreneurs. We need changes, new types of organisations and new technology. But most studies on innovation look at products, processes and organisations – not at people. Hence the gender perspective disappears,” says Gry Agnete Alsos at the University of Nordland.

The researchers believe that too much attention is given to male dominated industries, such as technology, IT and engineering, when it comes to studying innovation.  These industries then receive financial support from policy makers looking to support innovation, often to the detriment of other industries that the paper claims are at least as innovative.

“Statistics Norway carries out an innovation survey every second year, but only certain industries are included. Many of the service industries are left out of the survey and tourism wasn’t included until 2012. But there is a lot of innovation going on in these industries as well,” says Alsos.

The importance of process innovation was something I touched upon in a recent blog, with the full potential of technological innovations often only realized when process innovations emerge to fully capitalize on the new technologies.  This kind of innovation however is often regarded as rather un-trendy, and therefore not given the attention it deserves.

“It may be significant in terms of how much attention is directed at innovation in these industries and in terms of what is perceived as innovation. This affects political attention, how young people regard the various sectors as an attractive future work place and the framework conditions in the various industries,” says Alsos.

The paper also highlighted a number of studies that show how differently the sexes are regarded when it comes to innovation.  For instance, a 2013 study revealed that women have as many ideas as men, but those ideas are often not taken seriously or listened to.  It also emerged that these ideas were given less support to bring them to fruition.

“Here, the researchers look at what is going on in the big businesses and on how access to new ideas is attained. They look at formal structures, what positions are occupied by men and women and the informal structures. Who are being heard and who possess the competence which is regarded as relevant?”

The three researchers have started working on a handbook on gender and innovation. Alsos is hoping that this will make future research look more at gender in the innovation processes.

“Gender stereotypes telling us that men are more innovative and active contribute to making some businesses more valuable than others. We need to keep these types of mechanisms in mind,” she says.


13 thoughts on “The role of gender in innovation

  1. More than diversity, the keyword when you speak about genders is complementarity, like 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 Men and women have their own approach to problems and innovation and no vision is wrong… Anyway, great article, thanks Adi!

  2. Well, I am not surprised that female mangers outscored their male counterparts when it comes to feedback and encouragements since the former is more empathetic than the latter.

  3. Women are the work engines of any society. Innovation doesn’t preclude them either. They give birth to kids and rear them up with values and yet they don’t boast of their contribution to this society because they consider it as their bounded duty. The single most, greatest contribution to this whole of humanity is giving birth. Who delivers a baby with flesh and blood? Can any abstract/ concrete contribution surpass a biological one? Who takes more risk and pain in this procreation activity? Every kid is wonderful and unique in looks and abilities. Is it not? Women folk also contribute their bit in educating the society (I find that women writers’ write much better be it in science, mathematics and when it comes to romantic novels – the skill level is par excellence), health care, management and also in scientific R&D activities. They do it with much calmer mind than their male counterparts. It shouldn’t undermine their contribution in innovation and creativity. Any decorated house is a testimony to their creation. Fashion industry or any fast moving industry one would see far more contribution from women. People contribute a lot where their heart lies. Woman’s heart lies in her home due to her biological hard wiring, and work takes the second slot – it is a boon in disguise for men if looked at positively. What if women give up their normal roles and men have to don them day today, can men contribute at the same level? In my experience I had seen much better women managers. They are more responsible with much better time management skills. Day today management of the project with plethora of people, oh! My God, I must salute them for their craftiness in conflict resolution. I also like to go on record that the tender care that they show to their fellow colleagues is just wonderful. Work place looks well rounded if we have women in all positions playing all kinds of important roles. Men and women are equal in all mental faculties and each person might approach the problem in a different manner. Gender bias is a grave problem all over the world and we see that in the form of uneven sex ratios. India’s sex ratio is 940 females per 1000 men. It is still getting worse year on year. Men are squarely responsible for this problem. Can this be fixed creatively and innovatively by men?

  4. I definitely agree with the need for a diverse team, especially more so with different backgrounds and personalities. The definition of success in innovation is to maintain optimism for the project while being able to evaluate the situation's current state. In other words dream and stay awake at the same time.

  5. Good piece Adi, there is today's reality and then there is tomorrows. Today, because were still feeding and regurgitating mostly useless generalizations created by Gender Biased Scientific, Political and Social constructionists, there are probably Male and Female Tendencies that arent strictly things that our MD's care about. I try hard not to recognize them because they are vestigial. Tomorrow, that wont be the case anymore, Alpha Males and Beta Females wont exist, they will be considered A Humans and B Humans. That doesnt limit personal choice or individuality, it just removes the motivation to judge them based on perception instead of fact. Its not OK to Neuter humanity by separating us into categories of types, were all one type!!! Those ready to start knocking down the silos that separate us in 2015 will lead us all to the place we all need to be, Humans First and Always. I hope the day comes while I still breath that the gender wars that divide us end but Im not holding my breath! JR

  6. As men we must come to terms with the fact that you cannot claim courage unless you conquer your fears. it beats me that gender equality is still a board room topic. If you are the boss and you are about to discuss gender equality and discrimination against women then you are accepting that it exist in your organisation. Let the guilty wear a visible wrist band or send them packing. If not you are guilty. You want to know who is hungrier, Just open the playing field, but don't bet.

  7. "Massive inequality, we have learned, isn't the best way to run an economy after all. And when you think about it, it's also profoundly ugly". Thomas Frank

  8. In the security industry, the playing field is not even but is so far advanced from where it was 25 years ago when I got into the industry. I have enjoyed the whole ride.

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