Gender perspective boosts innovativeness

2011-08-08 09:28

‘Gender and innovation’ is a new research area, almost entirely confined to Sweden so far. Combining gender studies and innovation research is new, but the two fields have much in common.

– Innovation has always arisen from two questions: why do we do something in a particular way and how could we do it otherwise? And the same applies to gender studies.

The speaker is Jennie Granat Thorslund of the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems (VINNOVA), who runs VINNOVA’s Gender and Innovation programme jointly with her colleague Robert Hamrén.

One shared goal in the European Union is socially, ecologically and economically sustainable growth. To achieve this, innovations in every sector of society are needed. By questioning structural norms, gender studies can contribute to the goal, providing new insights about gender and gender equality.

– A gender perspective on innovation can broaden the concept of innovation, shed light on structural obstacles in and among organisations and show new forms of innovation system, Granat Thorslund says.

Economic growth is crucial to VINNOVA’s remit. The agency provides funding for needs-driven research, i.e. the kind that aims to solve problems identified by researchers or stakeholders in the business sector.

Innovation and Gender (2011), the anthology by VINNOVA, the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (the ‘Growth Agency’) and Innovation Norway, argues that a gender perspective can contribute to innovation and growth: it can bring about innovative design, more competitive products and new markets.

– With gender awareness, we can perceive structural obstacles. And, after all, obstacles as such can never generate growth, whatever we mean by the word, says Ulla Göransson, who started VINNOVA’s Gender and Innovation programme about ten years ago.
The goals and visions of VINNOVA as a whole prompts use of gender as a part of the problem-solving process, relates Robert Hamrén.
– How can we use gender perspectives to find new markets and new customer groups and, at the same time, break stereotyped norms in the long term? he asks.

Few gender researchers apply for VINNOVA funding

A Norwegian survey shows that almost all research on gender and innovation to date derives from Sweden. This is largely due to VINNOVA’s extensive initiatives in gender studies. Research on innovation and gender equality issues exists in several countries, but according to Granat Thorslund it often lacks an academic foundation in gender studies.

– It’s more about counting the number of women and men involved, or understanding women as another category of innovators, she says.

Generally, few gender researchers apply to join VINNOVA’s various programmes, and in particular, few researchers are interested in gender and innovation. Malin Lindberg of Luleå University of Technology in North Sweden is an exception. In her dissertation ‘Joint Action Networks for Innovation: An Interactive Challenge to Innovation Policy and Innovation Research in Gender Studies’ (Samverkansnätverk för innovation – en interaktiv och genusvetenskaplig utmaning av innovationspolitik och innovationsforskning), Lindberg shows that Swedish innovation policy and innovation research ‘do gender’ in a hierarchical, segregating way. Women and men alike, in her opinion, are active entrepreneurs and innovators, but some sectors and actors are given priority while others are marginalised.

To date, the public sector, services and the experience industry have derived least benefit from government support for innovation. Over the past five years these sectors have received growing attention, but governmental and regional support nevertheless goes primarily to basic industry, new technology and manufacturing. Lindberg’s research includes the ‘Raise’ project (Lyftet), which seeks to strengthen female entrepreneurs. Instead of focusing on how gender barriers can be eliminated within innovation systems and clusters in male-dominated industry, she wants to clarify what lies outside the norm.

– It’s about turning the perspectives around. What do innovation research and innovation policy look like from the viewpoint of female-dominated environments?

Prejudices ‘an obstacle to innovation’

In her dissertation, Lindberg also launches the ‘quatro helix’ model. Unlike the triple helix this comprises four collaborating networks: the non-profit sector (civil society), as well as the public sector, private enterprise and academia.

– The non-profit sector exists in practice, but doesn’t always show in theory. One repercussion of this is in applications for funding to develop innovation systems and clusters, she says.

Political reform work must focus not only on enhancing women’s skills but on the structure itself and on those who uphold the norm. According to Lindberg, both women and men in service occupations and the experience industry face prejudice in that they are not expected to be able to devise innovations or make them possible. Sometimes the obstacle consists of the innovation advisor’s ignorance about their field.

– They don’t always get the kind of help that the public support systems for enterprise and innovation development are supposed to give, Lindberg adds.

Catharina Håkansson Boman, State Secretary at the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications, emphasises the Government’s initiatives to promote innovation among women and in female-dominated sectors, and encourage more business startups. These initiatives are a matter of fostering innovations in areas where women work, but they also involve reviewing state support for innovation research and business development, to make sure that women are not at a disadvantage.

– To support women in starting businesses we invest SEK 100 million (just under €11m) a year, but also large-scale resources in our general support systems. The problem is that they are used mainly by men.

According to Håkansson Boman this is because the support systems are adapted to the structure of the business sector, which has long been and still is dominated by men.

– We’re trying to gradually direct the state’s investments to assist women’s business startups in new fields, such as the care and education sectors, as well.

Gender equality needs gender studies

Work is under way on a Swedish innovation strategy for the period up to 2020. Using this strategy, the Government wishes to pave the way for people, businesses, public administration and services, regions and research stakeholders to be innovative and able to meet challenges, needs and demand with new or better solutions. Making knowledge of gender part of the strategy goes without saying, according to Håkansson Boman.

– Since innovation calls for groundbreaking approaches, diversity and definitely a gender perspective are fundamental, she says.

The EU’s strategy for growth and employment, EU2020, has a major bearing on the nature of the Swedish innovation strategy. EU2020 has a broad definition of innovation and, besides economic growth, social drivers too are deemed to promote innovation, increase creativity and give rise to new solutions to problems.

According to Jennie Granat Thorslund, the innovation strategy in EU2020 is positive, since it reveals innovation in more sectors. But she also thinks that the emphasis on social entrepreneurship, social innovations and civil society may result in inequality.

– If social entrepreneurship and civil society are to play a bigger role in providing social welfare, presumably women will be more active part in this than men, judging from the way society is today.

Granat Thorslund points out that women’s business startups do not always lead to increased gender equality and growth, and that fostering such startups must therefore be well thought-out.

– If a woman starts a business so as to make it easier to combine being a business owner with family life, she may go from a full-time job to being a part-time businesswoman. This affects her own financial power and society loses revenue. If she takes on more responsibility for housework, her husband doesn’t need to do as much and can concentrate on his career instead.

Gender-equal society is, according to the anthology Innovation and Gender, a prerequisite for sustainable growth. The argument for a gender-equal organisation is that competitiveness is strengthened when workers are recruited from a broader skills base. Better decisions are made and creativity is boosted in work groups that comprise both women and men, and individuals with varying experience, knowledge and networks. Gender-mixed companies that strive for gender equality are more attractive workplaces and enhance their reputation among customers. According to VINNOVA’s newly started ‘Gender and Innovation’ (Genus och innovation) programme, gender studies are needed as a base for sustainable gender equality. The objective of this programme, which is currently being developed, is long-term sustainable growth through sustainable gender equality.

Justice and democracy are relevant arguments for working to achieve gender equality and increased awareness about gender issues. But it is usually not until companies face problems in terms of their supply of skills or competitiveness that they become open to this discussion, Granat Thorslund thinks.

– And I don’t think that has to be a problem. You can just take it from there.

Author Inga-Bodil Ekselius
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