Innovation’s Machismo Problem

14 February 2016, posted by Alf Rehn

There are many reasons to hate the innovation discourse. You might hate it for it’s relentless optimism, even in the face of evidence. You might despise it for it’s use of inflated language and buzzwords. You might just be bored of the way in which it has become an everpresent reference point for pundits and politicians. All of these are legitimate gripes, but they aren’t the only ones.

One of my least-favorite issues with the innovation discourse is the manner in which it sticks to a code of machismo and operates with a gendered logic. In part this isn’t surprising, as we live in a society that still retains a great deal of gender bias and where the majority of innovation pundits are men, but this bias damages innovation and limits its horizons. It also continues the long tradition of overemphasizing certain areas of innovation at the expense of others, as well as the tendency of overemphasizing solitary heroes rather than seeing innovation as an often convoluted process of co-production.

Now, the innovation discourse is of course not alone in having a bias for phenomena that are labeled as being masculine. On the contrary, one might say that innovation discourse in this only follows a more general tendency in society. Societal codes and culture has ingrained in us a set of beliefs and assumptions that skew our way of viewing the world. For instance, research conducted at Duke University has shown that we tend to associate notions of creativity with capabilities such as independence of thought, and that this affects how we view the creative power of a work. In fact, these studies showed that people can judge a work as being more creative simply by being told that it was done by a man.

The existance of these kinds of biases is of course well known, and the inequality they can create should of course be battled in all instances. What is particular about innovation, however, is that it builds specifically on seeing new potential and new possibilities. In such an instance, biases are not just morally problematic, they are at odds with the concept itself.

What, then, is the machismo problem in innovation discourse? I contend that there are at least three facets of this, which deserve to be dealt with in turn. These facets include, but aren’t necessarily limited to, hero myths, field myopia and reductionistic value logics. Do note what my argument isn’t. I am not arguing that men, a group to which I happen to belong, all think in a similar vein or make the same mistakes. Nor am I trying to present a simplified argument along the lines of “just let more women in, and all will be set aright”. What I am talking about is a cultural tendency to value certain things over others and biases that can be held regardless of gender. Now, patterns in discourse emerge out of a plirality of sources and effects, so neither am I claiming that all can be explained by this kind of a perspective. With this said, onto the problems…

Hero Myths
The innovation discourse loves its heroes. Be it Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, they are endlessly referred to, quoted, and fawned over. And they’re almost always male. When creating lists of great innovators one of course always attempts to list a few women, but depressingly often one ends up with a version of an “all male panel”. In part this can be explained by the simple fact that more men occupy the kind of positions where they will be seen and understood as innovators, but this also relates to a deeper problem in innovation writing. The tendency to focus on heroes, who then often happen to be men, stems from an individualistic tendency in the wider culture, coupled with a limited understanding of how innovation works. To put it simply: Steve Jobs wasn’t as important as many would like to believe. He was important, there’s no denying that, but the innovation power of Apple stemmed (and stems) from a large group of people, and a complex process of many small contributions. This, however, is a complicated story, and doesn’t speak to our desire to admire a great hero, so the story of Apple is turned into the story of a single man (although Jony Ive is at times mentioned…).

The machismo problem of innovation’s hero myths is thus not that it writes about men, but that it valorizes the notion of the lone hero of innovation, and thus propagates a great man-theory of the same. By doing so, the innovation discourse contributes to the image that innovation is a man’s world, rather than questioning the same. Despite the work of many a fine thinker, who continuously remind us that innovation is a team sport, we often revert back to the simple hero myths, and thus propagate a flawed, and often gendered, idea of it. It would behoove the innovation discourse to challenge this. Not by trying to find more women to occupy the hero slots, but by discussing how real innovations are born out of a diverse set of inputs from a multitude of mothers and fathers.

Field Myopia
Tech, tech, tech… The innovation discourse is enamored with tech, and the tech bros that build it. Nothing wrong with this, in principle, and great innovations in tech should be celebrated. What is more problematic is that our discussion has become so obsessed with tech, or more to the point a specific sub-set of tech (namely IT), that other potential fields are crowded out of the conversation. Examples such as Uber and Tesla are lovely, but also stick closely to the trope that serious innovation has to be connected to serious technology – by which we surprisingly often mean male preoccupations such as cars. Software-solutions such as Facebook or Slack are praised because they speak to our preference for the logical and the controlled. Fintech enables city boys to play with tech bros, and unsurprisingly innovation pundits are excited. Occasionally, innovations in fields such as health or food are accepted into the conversation, but they should preferably be somehow connected back to tech. Fields such as e.g. fashion or social innovation are often ignored, although the latter is from time to time given a chance to shine – until something more important pops up.

Many fields are thus marginalized by the innovation discourse, which over time further enhances the image that they aren’t as important or as innovative as those afforded time in the spotlight. For even though one could well argue that innovations in the field of female hygiene products can be far more important overall than the creation of yet another app with which to hail cars, the latter will always be better positioned in the discussion. Here, innovation pundits need to step up. We need to take a long, hard look at the fields we write about and the examples we praise, and realize that we are part of a culture that often denigrates and marginalizes fields which are seen as “feminine”. We want to play with the big boys, so we write with machismo, not always seeing the myopia we create.

Reductionistic Value Logics
What makes an innovation great? For many it’s the value it generates, or the company that it builds. For others, it’s a function of the users. No wonder, then, that we often when writing about innovation lock onto a quantifiable value, and tout that as proof. Be it the billions brought in or the millions who use it daily, innovation discourse loves a nice, big number. At the same time, this is a tremendously bad way to talk about the value of an innovation. Consider the oral contraceptive pill, AKA “The Pill”. This is undeniably one of the greatest innovations of all time, and it’s impact on society was nothing short of transformative. By supplying cheap, efficient and (relatively) safe contraception, it was a foundational part of women’s liberation, and revolutionized life for many. Today, it is regularly used by over 100 million women, and generates a tremendous amount of revenue. But it’s true value isn’t in how much money it made for Searle (now a subsidiary of Pfizer), but what it made possible, what it meant. It meant control over your own fertility, it meant the possibility for women to have careers, it meant freedom.

Innovation discourse isn’t very good at talking about things such as meaning, for it has become so used to always talking about things through metrics. This is why some still measure innovation in part through the number of patents registered, even though many of these patents could be meaningless or practically abandoned (some claim that less than a percent of filed patents are commercially viable). This is why we’re so impressed by large sales figures – but what does the fact that Kylie Jenner Official App got 1,75 million downloads in its first week really say about how innovative it is (Spoiler alert: It isn’t.)? So onnovation discourse is stuck with macho figure slinging because talking about such things is relatively easy. At the same time, it also creates a situation where things that cannot be so easily processed – such as social innovation – are again marginalized, something which over time can come to hurt us all, regardless of gender.

So there are problems in the way we talk about innovation, the way we exemplify and measure it. These problems are part and parcel of how innovation is turned into a lesser version of itself, and how we start to chase downloads and already legitimized things over truly meaningful ones. Innovation thinkers need to take more responsibility of the discourse, and work harder at counteracting the problems that lessen and debase it. For innovation’s sake, and for the sake of all of us.

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