Every once in a while I get a comment from an audience member after a keynote speech or from someone who read my book, Mapping Innovation, about why so few women are included. Embarrassed, I try to explain that, as in many male dominated fields, women are woefully underrepresented in science and technology.
The preponderance of evidence shows that women can vastly improve innovation efforts, but are often shunted aside. In fact, throughout history, men have taken credit for discoveries that were actually achieved by women. So, while giving women a larger role in innovation would be just and fair, even more importantly it would improve performance.
The Power of Diversity
Over the past few decades there have been many efforts to increase diversity in organizations. Unfortunately, all too often these are seen more as a matter of political correctness than serious management initiatives. After all, so the thinking goes, why not just pick the best man for the job?
The truth is that there is abundant scientific evidence that diversity improves performance. For example, researchers at the University of Michigan found that diverse groups can solve problems better than a more homogenous team of greater objective ability. Another study that simulated markets showed that ethnic diversity deflated asset bubbles.
While the studies noted above merely simulate diversity in a controlled setting there is also evidence from the real world that diversity produces better outcomes. A McKinsey report that covered 366 public companies in a variety of countries and industries found that those which were more ethnically and gender diverse performed significantly better than others.
The problem is that when you narrow the backgrounds, experiences and outlooks of the people on your team, you are limiting the number of solution spaces that can be explored. At best, you will come up with fewer ideas and at worst, you run the risk of creating an echo chamber where inherent biases are normalized and groupthink sets in.
How Women in Particular Improve Performance
While increasing diversity in general increases performance, there is also evidence that women specifically have a major impact. In fact, in one wide ranging study, in which researchers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon sought to identify a general intelligence score for teams, they not only found that teams that included women got better results, but that the higher the proportion of women was, the better the teams did.
At first, the finding seems peculiar, but when you dig deeper it begins to make more sense. The study also found that the high performing teams members rated well on a test of social sensitivity and took turns when speaking. Perhaps not surprisingly, women do better on these parameters than men do.
Social sensitivity tests ask respondents to infer someone’s emotion by looking at a picture (you can try one here) and women tend score higher than men. As for taking turns while in a conversation, there’s a reason why we call it “mansplaining” and not “womensplaining.” Women usually are better listeners.
The findings of the study are consistent with something I’ve noticed in my innovation research. The best innovators are nothing like the mercurial, aggressive stereotype, but tend to be quiet geniuses. Often they aren’t the types that are immediately impressive, but those who listen to others and generously share insights.
Changing The Social Dynamic
One of the reasons that women often get overlooked, besides good old fashioned sexism, is that that there are vast misconceptions about what makes someone a good innovator. All too often, we imagine the best innovators to be like Steve Jobs–brash, aggressive and domineering–when actually just the opposite is true.
Make no mistake, great innovators are great collaborators. That’s why the research finds that successful teams score high in social sensitivity, take turns talking and listening to each other rather, rather than competing to dominate the conversation. It is never any one idea that solves a difficult problem, but how ideas are combined to arrive at an optimal solution.
So while it is true that these skills are more common in women, men have the capacity to develop them as well. In fact, probably the best way for men to learn them is to have more exposure to women in the workplace. Being exposed to a more collaborative working style can only help.
So besides the moral and just aspects of getting more women into innovation related fields and giving them better access to good, high paying jobs, there is also a practical element as well. Women make teams more productive.
Building The Next Generation
Social researchers have found evidence that that the main reason that women are less likely to go into STEM fields has more to do with cultural biases than it does with any innate ability. For example, boys are more encouraged to build things during play and so develop spatial skills early on, while girls can build the same skills with the same training.
Cultural bias also plays a role in the amount of encouragement young students get. STEM subjects can be challenging, and studies have found that boys often receive more support than girls because of educators’ belief in their innate talent. That’s probably why even girls who have high aptitude for math and science are less likely to choose a STEM major than boys of even lesser ability.
Yet cultural biases can evolve over time and there are a number of programs designed to change attitudes about women and innovation. For example Girls Who Code provides training and encouragement for young women and UNESCO’s TeachHer initiative is designed to provide better educational opportunities.
Perhaps most of all, initiatives like these can create role models and peer support. When young women see people like the Jennifer Doudna, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the star physicist Lisa Randall achieve great things in STEM fields, they’ll be more likely to choose a similar path. With more women innovating, we’ll all be better off.