Power, Profit & Gender: Women in Innovation

Futureality in Print

In a political and cultural moment both strange and fluid, looking back to values and beliefs we thought were long-defeated and discredited, it’s also a cultural moment galvanised by and innovated by women. Joanna Brassett, Director of Studio INTO, and Felicitas Olschewski, MA Innovation Management graduate and Creative Director at 72andSunny, reflect on ideas sparked by ‘Women In Innovation’ a recent industry event in London. In a wide-ranging dialogue around innovation and purpose, power, diversity and flexibility, it becomes clear that the question of gender is not an additional slide on a presentation. Gender shapes organisational culture, leadership, ideas of success, profitability, and how innovation itself is strategised, designed and practiced. Women are changing the innovation space for everyone.

Co-written by Joanna Brassett & Felicitas Olschewski.


Felicitas: Speaking about female leadership, no day passes by without a breaking news headline announcing another exodus [1] of men. What’s happening Joanna, what do you observe?

Joanna: It’s really interesting at this particular point in time that we are hearing more female voices from different positions at work and around innovation. It’s interesting to consider why we are hearing these voices now, why there’s momentum and a movement.

Felicitas: Do women have more confidence to speak up when movements from #MeToo [2], to reporting on the gender pay gap are happening, and see the media reacting positively?

Joanna: Yes, I think so. The only danger is that it stays a conversation and it might lack action! I was looking at some stats from the UN [3] recently and it is astonishing when you read that in 2018 across different countries, 76% of men are employed and only 50% of women. And then obviously, there is the wage gap. But I also think there’s another kind of gender inequality happening, which is less spoken about and women in innovation could be raising this — women combining paid work with unpaid work, such as devoting time to domestic duties and child care and all the work essential for households and economies to function. Across all 197 countries, where the UN carried out their research, men still have much more time for leisure and self-care compared to women. A career in innovation has particularly blurred boundaries between business and leisure. If women don’t have time for leisure, then they also don’t have time for meeting peers for example and for networking which is essential for their work. This is very subtle but sets them in a disadvantaged position very quickly.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/28/business/nike-women.html

[2] http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2017-silence-breakers/

[3] http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2018/1/feature-economies-that-work-for-women-work-for-everyone

A Room of One’s Own- Impression by İrem Nur Terzi


Felicitas: That’s really interesting. The aspect of networking brings us directly to the event that we both recently attended, the Woman in Innovation [4] (WIN) event , which originated in New York and recently started its operations here in London. Do you think that such organisations are the result of what’s happening in the workplace?

Joanna: Yes, I think they exist to create a safe space for women to join forces to generate more understanding around certain issues, to support each other through that, and to encourage openness. However, during that event there was a lot of discussion around whether men should have joined, what the advantage would be. It seems that WIN London wants to create a more balanced discussion between both men and women and to invite men to champion progress in gender equality issues.

Felicitas: There are a few aspects to this to consider. I agree that it is important to create safe spaces for women in the first place. I’m experiencing that women often lack confidence in the workplace. Recently, I have been part of a confidence workshop, created for women to share their achievements openly. What happened in that safe space was amazing, and it was incredible to see women open up.

But then it stays there. We need to have the conversation about how to include men in this, so we can reframe this emerging debate around women in innovation as a bigger and positive discussion about inclusivity in the workplace — as opposed to negative discourses about exclusion and harassment only.

As women in innovation, we have to think of how we can continue creating the space that Woolf described but now have to invite others in order to avoid separation.

Joanna: I was in an exhibition at Tate St. Ives Virginia Woolf: An exhibition Inspired by her Writings [5]. It was about the work of feminist and activist Virginia Woolf, who wrote the formative feminist text, “A Room of One’s Own”, in 1929.

Woolf was using the metaphor of the room for this new generation of creative women who were being empowered, how they need their own room and own space in order to grow. On the other hand, as you were just saying, it can be an isolating and separating thing. As women in innovation, we have to think of how we can continue creating the space that Woolf described but now have to invite others in order to avoid separation.

[5] https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-st-ives/exhibition/virginia-woolf


From the discussion at WIN I started noticing that purpose changes during the different career stages of women, it doesn’t stay constant.

Felicitas: Coming back to our safe space of the WIN evening, what was interesting is that they had structured the evening into four topics or values, presented as working groups, points of discussion and opportunity: Power, Flexibility, Diversity and Purpose. We were both in the Purpose group.

Purpose is an interesting one, how purpose was presented and evaluated steered the conversation away from diversity — usually the term used to describe the problem of a lack of women in innovation.

Joanna: ‘Purpose’ is refreshing, because it is a different type of value within the business context, maybe a value not so prominent in male-dominated organisations. From the discussion at WIN I started noticing that purpose changes during the different career stages of women, it doesn’t stay constant.

Felicitas: How would you describe the different stages of purpose for women involved in innovation?

Joanna: In their 20s when women start their career, the value and purpose is in gaining knowledge and experience, developing expertise and having access to role models and mentors. In their 30s, the years when women are likely build a family, we can see a very dramatic change. There is more focus on finances, promotions but also authenticity. A woman starts dealing with competing roles and there is more attention to purpose! She might say: “Actually I want to stay authentic [6], I want to have these different roles in my life, don’t want to ‘put on a face’, so-to-speak, in business, not in private life –to have the freedom to work around my different goals”. Feeling that they have missed some of the early opportunities in their 30s, women in their 40s start exploring what success means to them and how to reframe that. This redefinition can empower women in their 50’s to have real impact in the new context they create.

I read something from Cecilia Weckstrom, Senior Global Director of Responsibility at Lego [7]. She’s also the founder of the PowerWomen Network — they positioned their purpose of the organisation within the topic of Purpose, I believe. PowerWomen Network is addressing the issue of women lacking a good network which may result in women stepping down in the years after they started a family.

[6] https://hbr.org/2018/01/podcast-women-at-work

[7] https://ceciliaweckstrom.com/2018/02/23/why-did-i-start-the-powerwomen-network/


Modern Families- by Volvo and Grey London
How have you been experiencing the idea of flexibility or the importance of it? Or to what extent does it encourage even more pressure on women in particular?

Felicitas: That’s a big field to explore and I’d be curious to see what comes of it. A few years back, companies were championing the idea of collaboration and flat hierarchies. I’ve been recently speaking to someone from Netflix [9], where they have a really interesting organisational model in which employees don’t really have vacation days stated in their contracts but just take what they think they should take and work from where they think they should work. This kind of flexibility relates to the idea of mental well-being and how that can again redefine how we will design our workplaces and design work that fits into our lives and not a life that fits into work. It comes back to aspects of purpose.

How have you been experiencing the idea of flexibility or the importance of it? Or to what extent does it encourage even more pressure on women in particular?

Joanna: Flexibility is important. Often it’s used in association with new mothers (and not new fathers) who return from maternity leave and particularly in the creative businesses this flexibility has negatively associations and many women are disadvantaged or discriminated because of it. It’s a buzzword that is overused or used in wrong ways. Even though we want flexibility, it should not be confused with spontaneity, lack of planning, lack of focus or inefficiency! Those how work ‘flexibly’ create their personal schedules but also have the freedom to work around our goals and for the purpose we aim for. This is very valuable and is equally important to mothers and fathers. And that can open up a pool of talent for businesses.

But I think there’s also still a lot of work to be done around men in innovation and the stigma we have around their flexibility to work and taking time for paternity leave. That stigma is even stronger than stigma towards women. This issue is gaining momentum, but again, it is very much connected with the social and cultural attitudes. It’s an opportunity for WIN to address this.

[9] https://jobs.netflix.com/culture

VivaVax —22 year olds entrepreneurs Julia Peng and Alice Yang innovating a temperature-controlled medicine delivery system

Beyond Diversity, We see Talents.

The task is not only to extend the ladder higher-up for women, but extending it downwards, allowing more opportunity for younger girls to start a career in innovation.

Joanna: Firstly, the risk attached to diversity is that we recruit for diversity purposes and not for the purpose of talent. Secondly, we are missing out on conversations about different dimensions of diversity such as age, different genders, social groups. The focus could be on the younger generation and the awareness of how difficult it is to join innovation businesses without enough experience. Businesses could create more opportunities for young people straight from college, or people who haven’t gone to college yet and are post-secondary school. The task is not only to extend the ladder higher-up for women, but extending it downwards, allowing more opportunity for younger girls to start a career in innovation.

Take one example, I recently met the Manuel Dolderer, founder of the CODE University of Applied Sciences [10] in Berlin, educating digital pioneers as the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. He really has the ambition to have both genders represented equally. He is creating these weekend camps in secondary schools across Germany, where kids learn how to code. He actively raises awareness for careers in tech to girls through that.

Felicitas: Yes, I am from Germany myself and you are really limited to what you can choose from. Your path in Gymnasium (the most academic of the three types of secondary schools) is well-defined, you will be exposed to mathematics, biology and physics versus languages for example. There is an opportunity for innovation management to seek moments such as practice weeks or vacations to offer new kind of cultural experiences for kids around entrepreneurialism — I agree about extending the ladder downwards.

Joanna: I wanted to mention one interesting organisation. It’s called CORE Women [11] and they’re based in Colombia, which is very interesting anyway, because it’s outside of Europe, and US. Susana Martinez Restrepo who is working on unconscious bias, provides services and research to organisations to work on unconscious biases with both men and women. She is raising awareness around soft skills and how they differ in men and women and that this is a good thing that they differ. To build organisational culture we need to look at those foundations, and understand how we have been shaped by our social norms, thinking about how can we reshape our organisation step by step.

Felicitas: It’s interesting to look at smaller organisations to see what we can apply from them onto bigger organisations. It makes me think of the organisational model of the family in itself — how that could be transferred to organisational behaviour. If I think of the need for empowerment and look at power in my family — my grandmother is the most powerful member and she doesn’t need to be empowered. She simply has the power. Everyone has respect for her and vice versa, for how she promotes and represents the idea of care. Organisations need to consider how they curate relationships with their members.

Joanna: I really like what you just said: curating relationships. I think that’s a very considerate way of going forward.

What do you feel could be other initiatives of Women in Innovation?

Felicitas: I’d be interested in how we can reach women not even considering a path in innovation just yet. Where do we need to be present? How do we need to show up? How do we make it really tangible for them? I’ve had an interview this week with someone who approached me because of what I do, not because of where I work. It was really one of the first times ever. She asked me how I use innovation to shape my workplace. It was a good question. And I hope, we will all be asking those questions in building the future.

[10] https://code.berlin/en/

[11] http://corewoman.org/index-es.html

Full length version originally published in Futureality- A 2018 magazine by Central Saint Martins, MA Innovation Management .