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Gender equality – how the need to innovate turned it from an ‘ought’ into a ‘must’

By Elanor Bond, PA healthcare expert

Gender equality in the workplace is a good thing – we know diversity makes businesses better. What’s interesting, is that our new innovation research tells us something new. In a world that requires businesses to respond fast to change, gender equality in the workplace is not only a good thing but a necessary thing. 

We recently joined forces with the Cabinet Office Gender Equality Group and Foreign Commonwealth Office Women to hold the #HeForSheWhitehall event. You can find out more about this event in this blog

What stuck out most for me were the words of Janice Charette, Canadian High Commissioner to the UK. She said she was deflated and discouraged by the slow progress of conversation and the cyclic nature of discussions that have been going on for years. Her position was clear – we don’t need more studies to tell us what the evidence base already shows. We need something to actually change. 

Innovation matters

In our new research, ‘Innovation Matters’, we found that without innovation, top executives predict 66% of current organisations won’t survive. What’s more, of the 821 senior executives we surveyed, 50% don’t believe their leaders fully display the vision and passion needed to make innovation happen. 

As Janice says, the value proposition for gender equality and diversity in the workplace has existed for years. The research is in, consensus has been reached – organisations with a more balanced gender mix perform better. The problem is that gender parity has been presented as the cherry on top – an optional extra to push performance into the next echelon. This ignores the importance of diversity as the central mechanism for innovation and the key to ideating at pace. 

Innovators aren’t born in echo chambers. They’re cultivated in supportive teams with a broad mix of skills and backgrounds. Achieving gender equality in the workplace requires change, but the threat of change itself makes gender equality critical for most business’ future.  

What our new innovation research shows us is that change will be forced upon business whether we like it or not. Where organisations of the past could afford to lack diversity in exchange for the comfort of familiarity, for organisations of the future such an attitude will spell a speedy demise. 

Innovation untapped report


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Dare to discover

When a business is made up of people who are all very similar, it will struggle to problem solve as effectively as businesses with greater diversity. In fact, groups of diverse problem solvers tend to outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. This is because a group of high performers will tend towards the same method of problem solving and so their relatively greater ability is offset by their lack of problem solving diversity. 

To build strong, resilient companies that are able to quickly adapt to change we need diverse groups to work together, and we need to learn how to embrace the discomfort that this will sometimes present. 

Being an innovative business is a lot to do with how you access and interact with the marketplace of ideas. The image below shows our framework for innovation, and the silver circle highlights the process most inhibited by lack of diversity – discovery.  

[ Zoom ]
PA’s innovation framework
PA's innovation framework – how to boost your discovery

The ‘discover’ stage of innovation aims to create the biggest possible range of ideas. When presented with a problem, the kinds of ideas we’re likely to think of are dependent on the way our mind has been influenced by its environment. Our understanding of neuroplasticity, the way our brains reorganise and adapt to environmental stimuli, tells us that the way society treats different genders has a significant impact on the kind of skills those brains possess. 

Consider how little girls are  often praised for being polite and this can correspond with adults encouraging them to speak less than little boys. The opposite is true for little boys, who are often encouraged to speak and share ideas even when they shouldn’t – so long as they are funny and fit within the bounds of ‘cheeky’ or ‘mischievous’. The impact of this is that women tend to be better active listeners, and men more confident in sharing their thoughts. 

Different neurological tendencies and skills are produced through all kinds of societal difference – race, class, sexuality, education, family life and wealth – and these all influence the way we think. To get the biggest possible range of ideas, it’s not surprising you need the biggest possible range of thought processes and consequently the biggest possible range of people.  

Businesses which have too few women, or are unable to operate to their full potential, will have a less ideas than businesses where women are many and supported. Without enough input from female thinkers, businesses risk placing the answer to their problem beyond their cognitive horizon. 

From an 'ought' into a 'must'

Pressure on businesses to problem solve at pace takes gender equality from something businesses should do, to something businesses must do. Achieving gender equality requires change at every level and the biggest catalyst for that change will be the actions of those in the most privileged positions. In business cultures where everyone feels supported and valued, insight and criticism are shared faster – more ideas are generated and more is discovered. 

At the #HeForSheWhitehall event, Laura Haynes, Chair of the UK National Committee at UN Women, told us “we need to measure impacts and measure the benefits an equal world can bring.” At a time where 66% of organisations could disappear without innovation, speed of communication and maximal idea sharing is vital to business success. Committing to gender equality in the workplace is the best way to maximise access to the marketplace of ideas, and in doing so, future proof your business in a fast-changing world. 

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