How Do We Drive Innovation in the Lifeblood of the Economy with Only Half the Population?

Joan Michelson
Mar 20, 2018 · 5 min read
CERAWeek 2018, photo from Bloomberg

“When you only have men on a panel, it suggests that women’s perspectives aren’t relevant — they literally don’t have a voice in these settings…It also reinforces the perception that women don’t have the skills necessary to sit on a panel.” Anna Beninger, Research Director at Catalyst, as told to the Financial Times

Sitting in a session about vehicles at the 2018 ARPA-E Innovation Summit, I looked to my left in this cavernous room of about 300–400 people and all I saw in two sections of rows, 2/3rds of the room, was a sea of men. To my right were about 60 more people, approximately 15 of whom were women, including me. After the session, I walked through the ARPA-E Summit’s Technology Showcase and saw aisle upon aisle of innovative potential energy solutions and noticed another sea of men. I could probably throw a bowling ball down the aisle and not hit a female.

This is an Innovation Summit about the technologies of tomorrow, with a lot of brilliant people tackling highly-complex and vexing energy issues. From reducing the carbon footprint of the internal combustion engine — electric vehicles will not replace them for decades to come, if at all — to seaweed as a new fuel, to reinventing how electricity gets to your cellphone, these innovators are truly remarkable. We need all the great ideas we can get and that comes from having a diversity of thinkers at the table.

But ARPA-E ‘s Innovation Summit 2018 was almost all men, and white men at that. I counted only 17 women speakers of 118 on the agenda, and one of those women spoke twice, while two of them spoke at the Diversity Luncheon. At least those women got to speak.

The Paradox

Across the country at the annual CERAWeek conference of the oil and gas industry, at a session about “the prominent role women play” in the industry, women were barely given the microphone, according to Bloomberg. Really.

Energy is the lifeblood of the global economy — without energy, our economy and our lifestyles come to a screeching halt. Just ask the folks in Puerto Rico or even Houston, the heart of oil country, about what happened when Hurricane Harvey hit. Heck, forget to recharge your cellphone and see how you feel.

Image courtesy of TechVision21

The energy and power sectors are undergoing a massive transformation before our eyes, changing at the speed of light, yet in an industry that has long-development times, highly entrenched interests, and high capital costs, this is a tricky proposition. New technologies, new energy sources, new molecules, new business models, new efficiencies, new utilities, new financing, and new markets appear daily and are all converging, as ARPA-E’s Innovation Summit emphasized.

When you add the rise of supercomputers, the energy and power sectors’ transformations are in turn transforming our infrastructure, as Kelly Carnes, CEO of TechVision21 told me on my podcast, Green Connections Radio, and the sectors themselves, according to energy guru Peter Kelly-Detwiler (who actively uses his influence to increase the number of women speakers at events).

Why Does It Matter?

Just look at the economics. To solve these challenges, we need all the brightest minds at the table, and study after study proves that the number of new ideas increases exponentially with a diverse set of thinkers at the table. The IMF even blamed the 2008–9 financial crisis on “groupthink.”

Yet, here we are in 2018 and half the population — the half that makes 85 percent of consumer purchases, including cars and stopping for gas, by the way — still can hardly get a word in edgewise at conferences focused on their own field of expertise.

The problem is summarized by Anna Benninger, Research Director at Catalyst, a research firm that focuses on women in the workplace: “When you only have men on a panel, it suggests that women’s perspectives aren’t relevant — they literally don’t have a voice in these settings,” says Ms Beninger. “It also reinforces the perception that women don’t have the skills necessary to sit on a panel.”

Yet, study after study shows that all aspects of business performance improve and significantly with more women in leadership. So, obviously women have the skills to sit on these panels.

“With regards to business performance, we find clear evidence that companies with a higher participation of women in decision-making roles continue to generate higher returns on equity, while running more conservative balance sheets. In fact, where women account for the majority in the top management, the businesses show superior sales growth, high cash flow returns on investments and lower leverage.“ Credit Suisse 2016 Report

Men Taking Steps toward Diversity

There’s good news though. There was a large contingent of men (and of white men) in the 2018 ARPA-E Innovation Summit’s diversity luncheon. We need men actively participating in this diversity movement, who heard how to take steps to actively support the recruitment and promotion of women, so this was a good sign. They showed their support with their presence.

There’s also a nascent movement encouraging men to refuse to participate on all-male panels — aka manels. For example, the Financial Times reported in 2016 that Owen Barber, director of the Center for Global Development in Europe, now asks, “Have you thought about inviting a woman instead?”

It comes from the top. When the leadership of the organization producing the conference makes it a priority — as ARPA-E did in the past under Dr. Ellen Williams and under Dr. Cheryl Martin — then efforts are made to ensure women are included.

If not, well, you get manels.

Joan Michelson

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Joan is host of the acclaimed podcast Green Connections Radio and an award-winning, creative reporter-producer, communications, social impact leader and speaker