There’s an interesting gender paradox in innovation. When we think of product innovation, we tend to think of nerdy male engineers tinkering in a garage. It’s a stereotype that goes all the way back to the early days of Hewlett and Packard.
When we think of strong innovation ecosystems, however, we think of communities with high levels of connectivity, communication, and collaborative sharing. Those are stereotypically feminine traits.
If these attributes are so important to innovation, however, why do modern business and political systems continue to be dominated by men and to preferentially value stereotypically masculine behaviors? And how does that affect the overall strength of companies and economies?
These are the big questions that my colleague Janet Crawford has been exploring. Janet has created a new workshop for companies called The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequity. The program has become hugely popular, and I wanted to share some of her thinking from it. In our interview below, Janet draws on neuroscience and experimental psychology to address the question: Why is achieving gender equity so seemingly intractable and what can we do about it?
Yes, Virginia, there are women nerds. But how to make them leaders?
Victor Hwang: What’s the business case for involving more women in leadership and innovation?
Janet Crawford: The data are strong. Research out of MIT suggests that group intelligence is correlated with the number of women on a team. New research from Gallup found that retail stores with more gender diversity experienced a significantly higher revenue growth rate. Research from Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentages of women board directors produced an average of 66% higher ROI than those with the least.
Women comprise over 50% of the world’s population and influence 85% of purchasing decisions. It’s simply good business to include women in the innovation and design process. From a global perspective, the developing world represents a huge market opportunity. In these regions, women are most in touch with the daily challenges of life, making their design input invaluable. They are also more likely to re-invest profit into the community causing a multiplier effect.
Hwang: What do you mean by “feminine leadership”?
Crawford: Both men and women can exhibit feminine leadership qualities, but the tendency, both biologically and culturally, is for women to embody them more. These include a host of characteristics such as long-term and global perspective taking, nurturing, empathy, conversational turn taking, credit distribution, inquiry, networked thinking, etc. Promoting feminine leadership is less an issue of male vs. female, but a question of whether we are overlooking qualities that may be crucial to navigating 21st Century business challenges.
In a global survey of 64,000 people in 13 countries, two-thirds of respondents (both genders), ranked feminine leadership traits as essential to solving today’s most pressing problems in business, education, government and more.
Hwang: How did you become interested in the question of women in innovation and leadership?
Crawford: As a female scientist in my early 50’s, I’ve lived this question my whole life. In my 20’s, I naively assumed that as my generation moved into the workforce, equity in numbers and pay would follow. The reality, however, is that in my adult lifetime, there’s been extremely slow movement in terms of women reaching top leadership.
In 2012, I attended the inaugural Global Innovation Summit sponsored by T2 Venture Creation. It was striking to me how few women were present both on the stage and in the audience. There had certainly been no intentional exclusion: in fact, quite the opposite. Despite this, an event which could have drawn a robust representation of women included very few. That experience propelled me to examine why, and ultimately resulted in the creation of The Women & Innovation Lab, an experiential design shop to explore and address the hidden barriers to feminine leadership.
Hwang: Why do we see so few women at events like the Global Innovation Summit?
Crawford: It’s a symptom of a larger problem with complex roots, most of which don’t involve conscious intent to exclude women. As humans, we tend to replicate the biases and patterns of the culture in which we are immersed. The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. We unconsciously map the environment around us and whatever we are accustomed to seeing becomes what our brain recognizes as normal. Men look around a conference filled with men and nothing stands out as missing. It fits their unconscious pattern recognition.
We are immersed in a culture filled with images of masculine leadership. The Geena Davis Institute, for example, found in an analysis of the 21 G-rated films produced between 2006 and 2009 that men were almost four times as likely to be portrayed as working professionals, and significantly, no women were portrayed in law, medicine, politics or executive leadership. This lack of representation permeates popular media and feeds the unconscious pattern recognition that informs our decisions.
Even very small amounts of unconscious bias can result in dramatic differences in the numbers of women reaching the top. Until biases are made visible and we find creative ways to neutralize them, unconscious bias will trump conscious values, resulting in well-meaning people inadvertently perpetuating the status quo.
Hwang: So, how does this phenomenon affect women’s advancement to leadership?
Crawford: Business culture favors the masculine perspective, not because of an intention to marginalize women, but because men designed it. As a result, we recognize and reward masculine leadership, but the contributions of feminine leadership often remain invisible. Qualified women are not promoted and included because their values and traits don’t fit what leadership traditionally has looked like, both physically and archetypally.
This creates a double hurdle for women. Women are able to succeed in a “man’s world,” but it can come at a high psychological and physiological cost. Many women drop out of the leadership track or start their own businesses where they can dictate their own terms, rather than to “lean in” to a system that wasn’t build to recognize and reward their strengths and contributions. Those women who do pursue the leadership track face significant unconscious bias.
In addition, we are neurally designed to function within webs of relationship that also tend to self-replicate. Men invite the people with whom they have relationships and who exhibit the kinds of behaviors and trappings that their unconscious pattern recognition equates with “membership in the club.” Since there are few women in this mix, the system remains insular.
Hwang: How effective are women’s initiatives at furthering progress?
Crawford: Women’s initiatives play a vital role in addressing this issue, yet they sometimes inadvertently contribute to its entrenchment.
The primary emphasis is usually on helping women fit into the system as opposed to changing it. A prime example is programs that help women become more assertive, including speaking louder, taking up more airtime and interrupting. While passive behaviors certainly hold women back from promotion, we could focus on helping all employees understand how to facilitate inclusive conversations and how to differentiate when a dominating style is effective and when a background facilitative role would be most useful to the goals of the organization.
Empowerment programs also single women out as a special class, which can lead to a phenomenon called stereotype threat. Research shows that when members of a non-dominant class are made aware of their status as “other,” it can activate the threat centers of the brain and lower their ability to perform. Sheryl Sandberg alludes to this phenomenon in her recent TED women interview, speaking of her terror at taking the stage for her groundbreaking TED video and specifically calling attention to the fact that she is female.
Most significant, though, is that women’s initiatives make the issue about women, when it should be treated as a pressing business issue. Whenever “women” is part of the title of an event, most men automatically think the conversation doesn’t concern or include then.
Hwang: So what’s the answer?
Crawford: There is no one answer, but four things are imperative. One, raise awareness of implicit bias and create programs to combat it. Two, change the conversation. This is a business issue, not a just a women’s issue. Three, depolarize the issue and enroll men in the gender equity movement. And four, create workplaces that recognize and reward both feminine and masculine leadership styles
Thanks to Janet Crawford for this interview. Janet is Principal of Cascadance and the creator of The Women & Innovation Lab. Cascadance leverages academic research from fields such as neuroscience, evolutionary biology and experimental psychology to help companies become more productive, innovative and collaborative.
Victor W. Hwang is Executive Director of the Global Innovation Summit + Week, a Silicon Valley festival that convenes delegates from over 50 countries seeking to create innovation at scale across communities, companies, and countries. It also has a lot more women now.
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