Bias, stereotypes and unequal pay all contribute to a gendered innovation gap that has serious costs for society. Work environments need to change.

You are in a sunny clearing in the forest, foraging for berries to bring home to your family. Your mind is wandering and you are enjoying the breeze, when you become aware of a sabre-toothed tiger heading your way. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in; your brain goes into hyperfocus mode. All other thoughts evaporate, as your entire conscious and subconscious attention is now laser-focused on survival. Think of it as not a good day at the office.

In the modern world, we’re hardwired to deal with modern threats in the same way our ancestors dealt with the tiger: we get very focused. And that’s a problem. The workplace has its own set of threats, and for women chief among them are stereotype threats and other negative cues. In science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and in the corporate world, these threats are especially likely to be present.

Threats in the workplaces are rarely life-threatening and are usually not overt. Nonetheless, they divert cognitive resources that could be put to better use elsewhere. And this has long-term consequences for all of society.

The innovation gap and why diversity in innovation is important

Innovation is often associated with advances in technology or the creation of products for economic growth. Women’s and men’s approaches are not the same. Women tend to innovate in ways that can lead to social improvements and have local or international reach. We should broaden our view of innovation beyond simply honing a competitive advantage within industry. For example, a retired nurse who converts her large home to a respite care centre fills a gap in public health services and is innovating in a local context. Around the world, women-only taxi services are appearing in response to the harassment that many solo female riders have experienced from male drivers. Gender inequalities are particularly sharp in times of crisis, and the increasing prevalence of natural disasters could displace millions of people. Response teams that include women can provide support in ways that benefit the entire community.

It is easy to imagine how diversity in policy-making can support better outcomes for large, multifaceted problems like population displacement. A diverse group of individuals means many perspectives and will generate a broader set of possible solutions than a team whose members have identical training and backgrounds. Diversity also has direct benefits for team innovation and financial performance.

Yet there are gaps that are preventing the formation of equitable, diverse and inclusive teams that can face future challenges. The participation gap, lower participation of women in the economy, costs society trillions of dollars. Then there is the pay gap, which I write about later. Less obvious and more challenging to measure are the innovation gap (less innovation by women) and the creativity gap (more creative productivity by men). Both can be traced to unequal access to resources and opportunities, so they reinforce the economic gap, in a vicious circle.

Bias and stereotypes

Many workplaces are rife with sexism, gender bias and negative stereotyping. For women the daily experience of showing up to these environments can be an exercise in avoidance and guarded behaviour. Hiding parts of one’s identity in order to blend into a very masculine work culture, for example, makes it impossible to bring your whole self to work. Damaging stereotypes include the debunked notion that women are not strong leaders or negotiators. The you-can’t-win flip side is that when women excel in traditionally masculine leadership styles, they are viewed as abrasive or bossy.

STEM fields are notorious for harbouring gender stereotypes. Even in Scandinavia, where gender equality is more consistently supported, a research study of innovation in an energy sector industrial organization found that women receive less support in generating ideas, and their ideas are less likely to be implemented.

The myth that girls have less intellectual ability develops early: by age six, both genders have internalized the false belief that boys are better at math. My research has shown that female STEM students are more concerned with failure, despite having equally strong grades. They should be encouraged to think about errors as a welcome part of learning how to solve problems creatively, rather than failures to be avoided at all costs.

In 2012, Yale University researchers manipulated the names of fictional applicants for a science lab manager position. They found that the male and the female faculty offered lower starting salaries and fewer mentoring opportunities when they thought the applicant was a woman, although the content of the applicants’ CVs was identical.

Students are as biased as the faculty who teach them. In a US study, online students who were told the instructor was female gave more negative reviews on 12 instructor traits than those who thought the instructor was male. No wonder there is a persistent leaky pipeline for women in STEM.

Salaries

Salary is often perceived as a measure of worth to society. Adding insult to injury, then, is the pay gap, which hits women immediately after they graduate from university. In their very first post-university career year, Canadian women earn on average $5,700 less than their male counterparts. The gap continues to widen: five years after graduation, men with a master’s degree earn more than women with a master’s degree, and more than women with a doctorate and those with a professional degree (medical doctors and lawyers).

The wage gap serves as a constant reminder to career women that their contributions are not equally valued. Feeling that you and your ideas count is an important part of feeling you belong, which in turn is necessary for innovation and creativity to flourish.

Psychological and cognitive fallout

So how do bias, stereotypes and unequal pay contribute to the innovation gap? Let’s go back to the tiger. When we are under threat, our evolutionary tendency is to minimize the energy expended on other functions to deal with the threat. In today’s work environments, many women adopt narrowly focused, analytic approaches in order to deal with negative cues and stereotypes. That can mean taking safe, effective approaches to tasks rather than casting about broadly for new things to do or new ways to do them.

Vigilant concentration has its place, but it is the exact opposite of the cognitive approach that is needed for creative thinking and innovation. Proposing untried solutions requires thinking outside the box and brings with it the risk of having one’s ideas shot down. It also requires being open and attuned to divergent possibilities, and associating seemingly unrelated ideas. All of this takes a lot of brain power and consumes massive neural resources that are simply not available when the brain perceives any kind of threat.

The continuous – often subconscious – struggle to prove negative stereotypes wrong is exhausting, both cognitively and emotionally. Long-term stress has also been shown to cause unfavourable structural changes in those areas of the brain that are critical for creative thought. The longer an individual encounters a steady undercurrent of negative experiences, the more challenging it becomes to reawaken creativity.

A more balanced innovation ecosystem

Not all women face the same stereotypes, of course. Finding ways to include the diverse perspectives of women would help bring about more innovative solutions to societal problems.

For too long, innovation has been defined in terms of technology and economic benefits: areas where women are not equal. First, women need equal access to resources and opportunities (including mentoring and financing for research and start-ups). Second, innovation must be reframed conceptually to include social innovation. In the social arena, innovation involves the development of effective solutions for social challenges.

In a world where the gap between rich and poor is widening, where population migration and other climate-related problems are causing social upheaval, now is the time to build an ecosystem where women are equal partners in the innovation space. This will require concerted efforts at all levels of society, from individual citizens to policy-makers.

On the individual level, people need to understand that stereotype threat is systemic, and that we all have bias. Simple intro-level training in gender-based analysis should be accessible to all. perhaps even required for a broader variety of positions. For example, making it mandatory for private-sector organizations that want to work with the public sector to ensure all its employees complete this training could be a place to start.

In recent years, valuable initiatives to foster social progress have been adopted in Canada, but many problem areas remain. For example, there are major regional differences in child care costs: it is estimated that they are 10 times higher in Toronto than they are in Montreal. Is it a coincidence that female representation in senior management occupations in Quebec is 45.5 percent, and it is only 28.9 percent Ontario? Maybe not. Access to child care, encouraging partners to take parental leave, and relieving women of some of the unpaid work they do for their families are two practical steps that can help increase the economic participation of women so they can develop qualifications for senior positions.

However, no practical solutions will help ease the innovation gap unless it is in the organizational culture to invite ideas from all and act on them. Opportunities for training together with tax credits for training programs will be crucial to support progress.

On the policy level, one way to advance breakthrough initiatives to address gender gaps would be a sharing of goals between the Innovation, Science and Economic Development and the Women and Gender Equality departments. New centres of expertise (such as the AI hub in Montreal) should always include actionable components to support a culture of equity, diversity and inclusion, starting with legislated wage equality and pay transparency.

Cultural supports are especially important in rapidly growing fields like AI, which is profoundly changing the world but is known to be not particularly female-friendly. By building from the ground up to include diverse viewpoints, we can help ensure such initiatives support the greater good.

Fostering innovation means not just tolerating but actively seeking out diverse perspectives, and cultivating the conditions for them to thrive. With International Women’s Day around the corner, it is notable that much remains to be done to reduce stereotype threat and other biases in the workplace so that everyone feels safe ─ and thus has the cognitive bandwidth ─ to engage meaningfully and contribute creatively. By joining forces, we can be on the lookout for sabre-toothed tigers, and ensure the working environments of all Canadians are less hostile and support equitable social progress.

Photo: Shutterstock, by ercan senkaya.


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