Innovation Is Key to Business Success—Yet Women Aren’t Perceived as Innovators

Contact Us

Innovation Is Key to Business Success—Yet Women Aren’t Perceived as Innovators

What number-one factor is behind a successful business? Research shows it’s innovation, and it has been for the past quarter of a century. BDC found that innovative activities have consistently remained the most important success determinant for companies, outranking all other factors including management, marketing, HR practices, and financing. Studies have also repeatedly shown that CEOs believe innovation is the most critical factor for corporate growth.

It’s not hard to understand why innovation is so important in the workplace. At the most basic level, innovative cultures give organizations an advantage to connect to and penetrate developing markets more quickly, which can lead to expanded opportunities and greater profits. Much of the innovation in today’s business world relates to digital transformation—yet we’ve seen ample evidence in the tech world that women simply aren’t penetrating the industry the same way that men are, particularly in roles that involve leadership and innovation.

We can see an example of this at individual companies like Google—their diversity report released last month showed that the gender ratios have barely moved since a year ago, with men still holding three-quarters of the leadership roles. When we zero in further to determine women’s impact in the larger industry, specifically in roles that exert a significant influence on future innovation, we find even fewer women with a seat at the table. The National Center for Women & Information Technology reports that male-only invention teams invented close to 90 percent of all information technology patents, while all-female teams invented only 2 percent of these patents.

SHAMBAUGH’s research has repeatedly shown that underutilized talent curtails business performance—when women are underrepresented at the leadership level, it impacts the entire organization’s ability to compete and thrive. The same can certainly be said for roles involving innovation. When women are excluded from innovative roles, the entire company suffers from that lack of cognitive diversity in generating fresh approaches and new ideas.

Gender balance is needed to fuel corporate innovation, but how can we achieve it in light of the facts above? New findings from a series of three studies point to a specific area to target for improvement at the leadership level involving perception. The study found that in performance evaluations, when it comes to being perceived as innovators, women are viewed very differently than men are viewed.As Derek R. Avery, one of the researchers who conducted the studies, explained:  “Women’s innovative work behaviors appear to be ignored or downplayed. They are not recognized to the same extent as those displayed by men.”

The authors summarize that the study highlights “a previously unidentified form of sex bias,” noting that the findings are especially important for leaders who want to increase innovative behaviors in the workplace. “We need to address this phenomenon of ‘think innovation-think male,’” the researchers emphasize.

I couldn’t agree more, and implore leadership teams to take the following three steps developed by SHAMBAUGH to create a more inclusive culture, which will help break down the gender divide when it comes to innovation perception and help companies tap into a wider range of innovative thinking:

Break through complacency. Management needs to view inclusion, cognitive diversity, and gender equality as areas to target with intentional, strategic change initiatives—both in the company as a whole and specifically in roles that draw on innovative talent. It’s important for a top-down approach that embeds a true strategy, which should be one that goes beyond one-off trainings or women-only development opportunities. Get a handle on your own company’s numbers when it comes to how many women are in innovative roles, but then go beyond the metrics to focus on behaviors. These include becoming aware of gender-based bias and ensuring that teams aren’t monotone in their composition. (See details below.)

Watch for unconscious bias. The new research mentioned above by Avery et al reveals quite starkly that women are judged differently than men around innovative behaviors. The study noted that “Because of this bias, women who innovate may not receive better performance evaluations than those who do not innovate, whereas engaging in innovative work behaviors is beneficial for men.”

Is this a blind spot for your leadership team as well? Do you mirror the findings of the three studies that found favorable performance evaluations are associated with innovative work behaviors for only one gender? If so, it’s important to give your organization’s unconscious bias a reset. Be prepared to help managers remove their filters to recognize a broader range and more diverse set of innovative thinking and ideas, and to reward women as well as men for innovative behaviors and contributions.

Build teams with layers. If your leadership team is stuck in a rut of viewing innovation only through one lens—which is either predominantly or completely a male lens—then it’s time to create and nurture more layered teams. As a leader, you may feel more comfortable working with innovators who match your own style and viewpoints. But until you take a new approach, you’ll never maximize the entire organization’s innovative potential. Breakthrough solutions are born from a wide range of cognitive styles, not from sameness and repetitive approaches to problem solving.

How does your leadership team approach innovation? Are you ready to harness the collective intelligence and true innovative potential of all of your talent? I’d love to discuss this with you personally to explore how your organization can develop a more inclusive workplace environment that leverages both your male and female innovators.

Rebecca Shambaugh is a leadership expert on building inclusive cultures and high performance cultures. Sheis the Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results

We’re on a mission to develop high-performing and inclusive leaders who transform workplace cultures so everyone can thrive. Find out more about us at:

Share this post?

Rebecca Shambaugh

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *