Women wanted for innovation

Thursday 8th March 2012

Today is International Women’s Day. Sue Irwin Ironside - chair of Baldwins Intellectual Property- takes the opportunity to discuss the innovation gender gap in New Zealand.

Let’s face it, men do tend to get the better deal when it comes to labels.

Women are cooks, men are chefs. Women are ball-breakers, men are assertive. But we have one label which we have not assigned a gender bias to, simply because women rarely receive a consideration.

That word is ‘innovator’.

This instantly brings to mind a male inventor in the Albert Einstein genre, or a marketing executive perhaps, from the nostalgic days of Mad Men.

Similar to the old jokes about doctors where the punchline reveals the doctor is in fact female, this is a warning sign that we need to bring our bank of innovative individuals up-to-date by encouraging female participation.

Women comprise more than half the population, yet they are under-represented in innovation figures with female inventors taking out less than 1% of all NZ patents[1]. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case and can we really afford to let half our economic potential go to waste?

We are no strangers to revolutionising the world by our ideals in equality, considering that in 1893 New Zealand led the way giving women the vote.

I would argue that we can lead the way again by encouraging women to innovate and utilising the Kiwi adventurous spirit to compete on a global scale. Building a more competitive and productive economy is one of the Government’s four key priorities and for New Zealand to realise its economic potential, we need to encourage innovation and in particular women innovators.

New Zealand has a great history of innovation, such as Richard Pearse who arguably was the first to fly; Ernest Rutherford who brought us back down to earth by splitting the atom; and more recently, AJ Hackett who turned a love of adrenalin sports into a multi-million dollar business. But really, who is to suggest that is it just the domain of our menfolk and how much could we achieve if we tapped such a source of previously unforeseen potential?

WOW founder (and Baldwins client) Dame Suzie Moncrieff took an idea to promote a rural art gallery that now, more than 25 years later is an important event on the international calendar. But perhaps New Zealand’s best known female innovator is Norma McCulloch, who in 2003 was named in the world’s top 10 women inventors for her Breath of Life resuscitator, by the Global Women Inventors and Innovators network.

Norma was a lifelong inventor. She grew up in Liverpool in the depression and in her case necessity really was the mother of invention. She began inventing in her childhood and continued to put her mind to solving problems for the rest of her life.

Women are just as capable of innovating as men and should be given adequate support networks to encourage their inventive spirit. These support networks are crucial as a lack of confidence is inevitable in people who have never been encouraged to shine, but as Nelson Mandela said in his 1994 inaugural speech, “Playing small does not serve the world. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

[1] Sunday Star Times, research from VictoriaUniversity, 12th January 2012

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