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11 June 2010

Can Men Innovate Alone?



Many of the cutting-edge research papers and corporate gender initiatives that abound these days are based on the assumption that men and women think and behave differently as a result of a combination of nature and nurture.  Whether or not you subscribe to this theory, there’s enough credible research out there to (at the very minimum) entertain the notion and to spur a healthy amount of debate among proponents and detractors. 


Bench_meeting At last year’s Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, for example, quite a few speakers noted that in general, women have a better long-term view; that they’re better empathizers; that they see the “big picture” better than men – all so-called “right brain” functions.  If this has any truth to it, what are the implications for the corporate world? 


I came across this week’s guest writer while reading our PwC Innovation Blog.  The entry, entitled “Innovator of the Century: Renaissance Man,” particularly caught my attention as it noted how critical “heterogeneous educational and cultural backgrounds and thinking” (a.k.a. diversity) are to innovation.  The author of the piece – my PwC colleague, Sarah Firisen – astutely noted that this is NOT a new concept at all, but one which we must rediscover in the 21st Century.  “Companies,” Sarah wrote, “which view creative thought and empathy skills with equal criticality to those of technical skills, be it for recruitment or advancement, will be at the forefront in the coming century.”


I wasted no time in emailing Sarah to establish a connection.  I said something to the effect of “Yes, yes, yes!  This is our elemental business case for diversity!  Let’s share and be friends!”  Happily, she agreed.  Even better, she agreed to write a piece on gender and innovation.  If this piques your curiosity, be sure to check out Daniel Pink’s short essay, The Revenge of the Right Brain,” which was adapted from the book Sarah mentions below.  And coming soon in this space…what Oprah’s inner circle had to say in May about women in the workplace…


à bientôt,




Sarah Firisen is a social media and innovations strategist as well as an IT systems architect and software developer.  Currently she works in PwC’s Thought Leadership group.  I encourage you to check out her regular contributions on 3 Quarks Daily and the PwC Innovation blog.



“When Hollywood portrays an eccentric inventor, the character is almost always a man; a wild haired, absent-minded and bumbling man. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one single, popular culture image of a female counterpart. While invention is not innovation, there is no doubt that they are first cousins; when we think of inventing, we usually think of products, and while by no means are all innovations product innovations, certainly many of them are. An invention becomes an innovation as it creates value and has an impact on the world in some form or other. I believe that this linkage, and often confusion, between invention and innovation, and the indelible image of the male, eccentric inventor can have a tendency to lead corporations to a male bias when they consider how to become more innovative.


As someone who was a software developer for over 13 years, I can personally attest to the overwhelming preponderance of men in that field, and certainly as you expand the view to engineering in general, the picture, if anything, gets worse. However, there is much evidence to suggest that what takes a product from the realms of a really good idea, or a clever piece of engineering, to a true innovation that creates value for a firm, are elements that women may be better at than men.


Daniel Pink, writing in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future, posits that right-brained “senses”, as he calls them, will be essential to the kinds of creativity and innovation that are going to be increasingly necessary moving forward into the 21st century. These senses are: design, story, play, meaning, symphony and empathy. Certainly, it seems to be intuitively correct that invention and innovation both involve a combination of left-brained and right-brained skills; while a factual understanding of the concepts involved is usually necessary, it is almost never sufficient, there is always an element of pure creativity involved. When we think about some of the companies and products that we consider innovative, they almost always go far beyond just good engineering. They usually combine great design and a deep understanding of the needs of the end user.


Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, has done extensive research that he believes shows that, “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” He doesn’t claim that only women are empathetic, rather that there is a female brain type in which empathizing is stronger than systemizing, and that, on average, more women have this brain type than men, and vice versa. 


It certainly is true that empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, is part of the essence of what makes us human. Companies that have embraced the notion of empathy and have integrated it fully into their business processes, companies where customer service representatives, for example, are allowed, actually encouraged, to go above and beyond - both in time and effort - in order to empathize with customers, these are companies that are increasingly being lauded as innovative, trendsetting companies for the 21st century. If Professor Baron-Cohen is correct, and at least anecdotally there is something very believable and familiar about his claims, then it would seem that women will become increasingly strategically important to Corporate America’s efforts to drive innovation, in all its aspects.”


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