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The role of gender in innovation

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The role of gender in innovation

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Achieving 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.

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