Why does gender diversity matter when it comes to product and service innovation? What has research shown? And what does hard-won experience tell us? This article shows how businesses gain a competitive edge by integrating a gender perspective into their innovation work – a much needed boost as global competition becomes increasingly tough.

The article is based on the book Innovation & Gender, the result of a collaboration project between two countries, Norway and Sweden and three different public agencies, Innovation Norway, the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth and VINNOVA. Common to all these agencies is a mission to increase growth by innovation. As globalisation increases, an ability to attract investment and competence assumes more importance and our region faces fresh challenges. The Nordic region cannot compete with low wages, so to sustain economic development and growth, we must bring to bear all our competencies and be innovative.

The innovation performance and competitiveness of the Nordic region has been explained by such factors as the welfare model and high levels of trust, cooperation, education and R&D funding. Important parts of the welfare model are measures for increased gender equality and our countries are often regarded as two of the most gender-equal countries in the world. The majority of Nordic women and men are active in working life but we have a horizontally and vertically segregated labour market.

One of our conclusions is that the most gender-segregated industries in Norway and Sweden face unprecedented challenges. We must be able to utilize all our capabilities so that companies, clusters and regions will be able to attract and keep a highly skilled workforce. Many young women and men today expect to be able to develop their full potential at work and achieve a work-life balance. The business sector must increase its capacity to connect innovation and gender in relation to the labour, product and financial markets.

In the policymaking context, innovation is considered a prerequisite of economic growth.

Innovation is uppermost in the mind of decision makers all around Europe. In recent years, the connection between innovation and gender has attracted increased interest among policymakers, researchers and business leaders. Businesses and clusters aspiring for a world class position have recognised the potential to create a manifold competitive advantage by integrating a gender perspective into their operations. This advantage involves improved financial performance, strengthening of the brand and tackling of workforce shortages.

Much of our understanding of the region as a locus of innovation comes from research into places that qualify as learning regions, clusters, industrial districts, or regional innovation systems. Hence innovation is no longer a word merely helping us describe and explain societal phenomena of “newness”, “change” and “diffusion”; it has also grown into important policy areas for assisting EU Member States in establishing conditions for creating economic growth, new jobs and social cohesion. In the policymaking context, innovation is considered a prerequisite of economic growth. For the agencies behind this book, innovation milieus are important perspectives for understanding and necessary policy tools for contributing to economic growth at regional and national level. As policy practitioners, we recognise that realizing innovation and renewal requires strong environments, innovation milieus, where public and private actors in complementary sectors collaborate.

Different sectors, different genders

For us as practitioners, innovation milieus have proved a valuable concept in understanding and promoting sustainable economic growth and development. However, we have also recognised some weaknesses with our policy implementation tools as these might lead to exclusion; a fact also recognised by researchers.

For example, the Nordic countries have a high level of participation by women in the labour market, but it is simultaneously one of the most horizontally segregated. Men and women are active in different sectors. The traditional female stereotypes are interwoven with conventional female roles and these, in turn, with the ways in which we are socialised. In the same way, masculine stereotypes are interwoven with masculine roles and how we are socialised. This creates a normative thinking about women and men and the specific position they are expected to adopt in our society. This will also be mirrored in innovation milieus, causing a weakness and potential for improvement.

Normative thinking is an obstacle to innovative thinking

Talent shortage and competence needs are the main fuel of gender diversity in many enterprises. With a gender perspective, we can raise awareness of the male norm in the business enterprise sector. This in turn will probably lead to more women in areas currently dominated by men. It seems that not only will less normative thinking about women and men lead to better gender equality, it will also lead to increased growth. Our argument is that normative thinking is an obstacle to innovative thinking. It will prevent many ideas from developing, meaning that many growth opportunities will be overlooked.

As cluster or programme managers, we need a portfolio of evidence-based practices and arguments for what we have chosen to call the innovation case for gender diversity. Cluster professionals need knowledge of how to introduce a gender perspective in innovation milieus, strategies to mobilise actors and tools applicable in diverse regional contexts for opening up new innovations and accessing new markets.

“Equal participation of men and women is essential for Europe to exploit the full potential of innovative strengths – not only for demographic reasons, but also in case of innovation processes and results. There is a need to clarify what (new) cluster policy related measures can support the process to get more women involved in the innovation process of business and research.”

Gender, growth and competitive advantage

In our daily work of managing national programmes aimed at promoting innovation milieus, we are looking for new ways to stimulate interest in the topic of “gender, growth and competitive advantage” among various cluster development actors. Organisations for cluster collaboration and intermediaries must be able to access arenas within which to exchange knowledge and experience on this topic. Given the fierce global competition, neither the Nordic countries nor Europe generally can afford not to utilise all possible opportunities.

The economic case for gender equality can be regarded as going a step further than the business case. While the business case highlights the need for equal treatment to reflect the diversity among potential employees and an organisation’s customers, the economic case stresses economic benefits at a macro level. An economic case stresses the wider economic benefits that span individuals, enterprises, regions and nations and can thus address inequalities in the wider labour market; something upon which the more limited business case approach will have less impact. Inspired by the business case for diversity and the economic case for gender equality, we argue that a gender perspective can strengthen innovation milieus; a step towards an innovation case for gender diversity.

All systems are the sum of their parts and individuals – women and men – in an innovation milieu are the “primary component“.

To include a gender perspective in an analysis of an innovation milieu is not a matter of adding one more factor; it means highlighting one aspect of the system that is yielding effects, regardless of whether these effects are measured or not. Studies have showed that gender analysis could also reveal unexploited innovative opportunities. Furthermore, all systems are the sum of their parts and individuals – women and men – in an innovation milieu are the “primary component”. If we integrate a gender perspective in policymaking and programme implementation we can broaden our interventions to include disciplines, branches and work areas where women are better represented. Even more important is the innovative thinking to which a gender perspective is expected to contribute.

The innovation case for gender diversity can have different drivers. Even so, what they have in common is a need for change; in the competition for competence, a need for better effectiveness in the innovation milieu and/or a need to find new markets or products. The point here is that to be leading actors within their branch, companies and innovation milieus must adopt fresh approaches. One way to do this is to be innovative by applying a gender perspective. Naturally, gender equality is a matter of democracy but for companies, economic growth is first priority and we will show how these two objectives – equality and growth – can go together. In our work as programme managers at national agencies we need to handle these objectives simultaneously, using different methods of translating the top-down approach of gender mainstreaming into practices that stimulate business and cluster development.

Several recent Swedish studies focus on how gender is constructed in innovation and discusses the “co-production of gender and innovation”. Other studies state that the production of gender in innovation policy can be seen as creating male and men as the norm. Science, innovation and technology are connected to masculinity. The overall focus on the aggregated level also causes contradiction, as the strategy makes a “black box” out of innovation and learning. A study of the Norwegian VRI programme, encouraging innovation through regional cooperation and R&D efforts, concludes that the bulk of innovation studies so far conducted focus on male-dominated industries and in ways that measure outcomes in male-dominated industries. Innovation in female-dominated sectors (such as the service sector and public sector) is rarely studied and they have not been deemed innovative. The study sees this as an empirical fault stemming from a narrow definition of innovation.

Taking VINNOVA as an example here the agency provides funding for research within the area of Gender and Innovation, including a women’s entrepreneurship programme and active engagement for future leader candidates in mobility projects between industry and academia (VINNMER Marie Curie). VINNOVA actively promote strategic planning in preparation for future generation changes.

This funding is part of a strategy by which the Agency aims to fulfill its mission, as laid out by the government, of funding gender research and contributing to gender equality in the area of activity concerned. In 2008, the Agency launched a specific programme, Applied Gender Research for strong Research and Innovation Milieus (TIGER) which aimed to change processes and increase gender awareness in a number of strong innovation milieus. TIGER is an R&D programme at the intersection of practical gender equality work and gender research. Knowledge gained from the R&D projects funded by TIGER is integrated into innovation milieus supported by VINNOVA under other programmes.

In the book, Innovation and Gender, we will be giving additional examples from Norwegian and Swedish clusters focusing on the steel industry, food production chain, maritime industry, development of products and services based on fibreoptics and automated manufacturing and lightweight materials.

Looking into current trends and the developments outside the Nordic and European arena, our confidence that we are on the right track has been strengthened. We need a transition, from the current state where few Nordic innovation milieus align a gender perspective with their strategic goals, to a future where all of them do. We can continue with business and innovation as usual if we want to produce “more of the same” and take the high-risk track associated with a lack of a gender perspective.

If on the other hand, we would like to communicate images of modern industries, clusters and companies to attract human resources, capital and investments, then we need to improve existing practices and sometimes also break with the existing order. As programme managers at public agencies we try to create pathways between policy aspirations and implementation of new practices in innovation milieus. In this book, we “push” for the innovation case for gender diversity by providing the reader with arguments backed by strong research and some generic methods backed by practical experiences. We hope the reader will be inspired to actively “pull” these methods and practices into their own context and stimulate a change of mindsets.

By Jennie Granat Thorslund, Programme Manager, VINNOVA, the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems.