We need more research on gender and innovation

innovation-561388_1920The first of November we were a group of people gathered in Stockholm University, invited by Inger Danilda from Quadruple Learning and Karin Berglund from Stockholm University. The issue that had brought us together was gender and innovation and what we need to learn for promoting better gender balance in innovation. Researchers, research funders, innovators themselves and women’s movements were represented. Even if the group wasn’t large, there was a lot of competence, also when looking at the development of the area the last couple of decades.

And here are some of our preliminary thoughts, which will be developed in documents and future meetings, next time in January:

The concept of innovation needs to be broadened in different ways, and we need to investigate how it is used, and what that usage means for different groups of potential innovators. The everyday definition of innovation, connecting it to new “things”, preferably technical ones limits what is recognized as an innovation and how a new idea, with a possibility, for example, to improve work processes or working environment, may or may not get funding to be developed. We also need to reflect on and find out about the relationship between “innovation” and “implementation”, as innovators still are mostly men, but their innovations may be put to use in female dominated environments: if a new product, an innovation, is deployed, but a lot of adjustments are needed from the users for it to function – why should the original innovator with the patent get all the credit, when quite a lot of development work is done by others?

We need to know where innovation happens in organizations – and whether women are there or not, and why. Is it the Nobel Prize problem, where results are often achieved by a group, but only one person becomes visible, i.e. is it actually so that women contribute to lots more innovations that what they get credit for? Previous research indicates that women are pushed to or choose to be in organizational roles (managerial, administrative or below their competence) which are farther away from direct innovation. We need to know more about that.

We also discussed the problem of ICT being so extremely male dominated. Much of the technical innovation today requires competence in IT, and if there are few women with that competence, that may hamper the innovation potential of “women”, at an aggregate level. We need to know if this is the case.

But it is not only the gendering of those who innovate, it also the gendering of those who are the target groups when innovations become products that we need to investigate. Not only if those groups are seen as being composed of women or of men, but also how those women and men are conceptualized. Would the intended use of a product reinforce stereotypical gender roles or not? Is there other uses for the innovation or a wider market for a product, if innovators and developers can free themselves from stereotypical thinking? We need to know more about how innovators and developers think about the user.

Working in diverse teams, both when it comes to gender, ethnicity, age, physical functionality etc, and when it comes to disciplinary background, is seen as a solution to issues like the one about users. However, we need to know more about the pros and cons of diverse teams. While previous research has shown that diverse teams can be more creative, it also indicates that less diverse teams can function better for some tasks. What implications does this have for innovation? How do multi-disciplinary teams function? What about the internal workings of multi-gendered teams? How important is gender balance; or are there also advantages with single sex teams, female or male, with variation in discipline, ethnicity, age, functionality etc?

These were just some of the issues discussed. Gender and innovation, in particular when also counting in social innovations opened up as a large research field with few trodden paths. Finally, we also stated that we were there to discuss research, which is basically an activity separated from the innovation activity itself. While action research is one way of doing research, trying to directly influence an activity, the main task of research is to find new knowledge about different, often vague issues. This knowledge may or may not feed into improvements, for example gender-wise, in the innovation sector, but whether that will happen, how and in which time frame, cannot be told until we have the results.

Minna Salminen Karlsson 

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