Last summer, Saatchi & Saatchi’s executive chairman Kevin Roberts caused an uproar and had to eventually resign when he was quoted saying that the debate on gender diversity was “over” and that the company had “never had a problem”. He was clearly missing the point, ignoring the vast amount of evidence around the business benefits of diverse leadership, but he did make one interesting point. Not all women want the big jobs. Some are quite content with doing great work at the level they are and would rather prioritise other things in their lives. Which made me think; surely this polarisation of views is part of the problem? To suggest that women aren’t as ambitious as men is as bad as suggesting that all women should aspire to get the top – because we end up generalising and therefore alienating some of our audiences. We are all individuals and perhaps the time has come to stop talking about women as a collective and take a different approach to gender diversity.

Perhaps the time has come to disrupt diversity?

Why shouldn’t we apply the same innovative thinking we use to resolve other business problems to gender diversity? It IS a business problem after all…

In this blog, I’ll share some recent research on this topic and my own views of how we could approach this challenge. Oh, and – I do talk about ‘women’ a lot, i.e. I am generalising. Which is exactly what we shouldn’t do. But I will get to that towards the end so please bear with me…

Women in Innovation

We recently ran an event at Market Gravity called ‘Women in Innovation’. We held a panel debate, moderated by the writer and freelance consultant Polly Courtney and joined by Suzy Levy, an expert on diversity; Moran Lerner, father of four and a successful tech entrepreneur; and three leading ladies from the world of corporate innovation: Rakhi Rajani from Travelex, Jo Towers from HSBC and Kaisie Rayner from Aegon. As preparation for the event, we researched the topic to understand the current gender balance in innovation professions, what women could bring to the table, why we don’t have more women in the profession, and what we can do about the imbalance.

Firstly, it was apparent that the gender gap we see in other areas of business is present also in innovation. We looked at the 20 most innovative companies (1) in the world and they are all led by men. We looked at FTSE 100 and 80% of the lead innovation roles in the top 20 are held by men. (2)

We looked at the top 100 venture capital firms where 7% of the partners are women, and accelerators and corporate venture firms where 12% of top jobs are held by women. (3) And finally, we looked at UK entrepreneurs, of which 25% are estimated to be women. (4)


But why is this a problem?

Of course, there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that diversity is good for business, and more balanced teams produce better results. But we wanted to understand what women could bring to innovation more specifically, and what kinds of results were achieved if the innovating teams had a better gender balance. So we interviewed 15 women and men working in innovation, from a mix of start-up and corporate worlds, to hear their views and learn from their experiences.

All the interviewees wholeheartedly agreed that more diversity was good for innovation, as it allows you to explore a range of views, to debate and to challenge – in order to build better products, services and businesses that appeal to diverse audiences. Women, they thought, typically brought specific strengths around four areas:

  • Empathy & emotion – helping the innovation teams gain deeper insight and understanding of customer needs and behaviours
  • Connecting things – identifying related ideas and forming more ‘stretchy’ concepts that expand and build beyond the original idea
  • Collaboration – creating less competitive and more productive teams
  • Openness & inclusion – seeking and listening to a wider range of ideas and opinions

So what’s holding women back?

When we started exploring why we don’t have more women in innovation, it was harder to keep ‘innovation’ separate from the broader world of business. Nevertheless, we discovered some specific challenges that are exacerbated in an innovation context:

  • Societal norms – that condition us to behave differently, with girls feeling the need to be ‘right’ rather than to ‘try’, making them more fearful of failure than boys
  • Lack of confidence – resulting in women selling their ideas of innovations ‘short’
  • Unconscious bias – favouring ‘people like me’ in recruitment, promotion and investment decisions
  • ‘Modern’ world of work – limiting our ability to work as flexibly as our lives sometimes demand.

Now some of you will be thinking, why should the last point be a woman’s challenge, surely that is a challenge for any of us, regardless of who you are and how your life evolves? I could not agree more – and suggest you read on, as I will get to it later. This is just playing back what we heard.

So then, if those are the challenges, what should we do? The million dollar (or, actually £100bn (5) ) question.

Right intentions, wrong results?

During the panel debate, we explored the topic of what could be done about the above challenges and how we could all make a contribution towards equality, in our professional and private lives.

We heard that while society may condition us to behave differently, there are in fact also biological reasons for our differences that we simply cannot change. For example, from the moment they are born, girls look for more reassurance, affirmation and safety, making eye contact with their carers earlier than boys. But the way we build on this in later life is not always helpful. Just look at the way some retailers are promoting clothes and toys; for boys, there is an adventure waiting and for girls, a crown (i.e. marrying into success). See this recent Gap advert for a case in point.


Another example is the way in Britain we still hold a notion of a girls and women as ‘ladies’ which comes with its own set of behavioural associations and expectations.

We talked about the confidence issue, which can divide opinion. It is a commonly held view that women are less willing to speak up in meetings and confidently put across their arguments. We have seen research and opinion pieces to suggest that this is in fact not about confidence but humility and self-awareness (6) – women holding themselves to higher standards before opening their mouths. I suppose we can debate the causes but I will say this; it came up in every single interview we did, with both women and men, and it was something that many of the female interviewees and panellists recognised in themselves.

We also learned that women lose confidence at key moments in their lives, for example after the birth of their first child. Many companies have good intentions to help returning mothers, giving them lighter workloads and less responsibility, when in fact this may just exacerbate the problem, making them feel even less confident in their abilities.

While everyone enjoyed our lively panel debate, it did leave me craving for more answers. What should we do? How can we tackle such a broad problem, where should we focus? McKinsey and Lean In recently reported lack of progress in this space, with women still trailing behind men in advancing their careers (7) , so perhaps time has come to try something new. Perhaps it’s time to try and innovate ourselves out of this imbalance?

How do we disrupt diversity?

To understand how we might learn from disruptive innovators, let’s first look at some of the things they do very well:

  1. They are crystal clear on who their target customer is and obsess about their needs
  2. They challenge orthodoxies, turning deeply held, widely shared beliefs on their head and imagining what might be if the opposite was true
  3. They choose one problem and are laser-focused on solving that better than ever before, continuously testing and iterating their solution

I am sure there are many others, but let’s use these 3 as a starting point – for argument’s sake.

So, who is our target customer?

Conventional thinking has been focused on helping mums return to work and work flexibly to help juggle family and career responsibilities. Companies typically offer mothers extended maternity leave, flexible working policies, child care vouchers, you name it. But what if we approached our audience as we would our customers? What if we segmented our female workforce based on their attitudes towards career and life, their aspirations and their potential? Understanding the differences between those who want to fast track their careers, those who need to take a step back and those who are looking for more varied challenge. And designing our supportive actions and initiatives accordingly.

Or – what if we focused on the guys instead?

Research has shown that the first year of parenting sets out the roles that are usually played out for the rest of the child’s life; in other words if the mum looks after the child in year 1, they are also more likely to carry the majority of the childcare responsibilities after that. If we focused our efforts on encouraging men to share the parental leave during the first year, not only could the mothers return to work earlier, they would also have more time to spend on their careers as the parenting duties are shared more equally. Of course the government has already taken steps in this direction, introducing shared parenting leave in 2015. However, one year on, less than 1% of eligible fathers had taken up on it (8) , showing that there is still a long way to go and much more to be done to encourage fathers to take the leave (and mothers to share it!).

Breaking assumptions

Next, we need to pick an orthodoxy, a common assumption to break. What would you choose? How about coming back to that old chestnut of women not promoting themselves confidently enough?

And challenging the conventional wisdom about how we should respond? How about…

“Women’s leadership and mentoring programmes are effective in helping women further their careers”.

To address the gender diversity challenge, many companies have rushed to set up women’s leadership and mentoring programmes where they get extra support, coaching, visibility, guidance, coaching and… frankly, work. To prove their worth, that they are ready for the promotion, ready for that leadership role. But are these programmes working?

Someone I recently spoke to actually dropped out of one such programme because they felt it was just adding to their already heavy workload and they couldn’t understand why as a woman, they needed to do all that extra work to be recognised – and why their work-related achievements could not be celebrated in others ways. According to HBR (9) , “Women often have to provide more evidence of competence than men do to be seen as equally capable, a problem documented in scores of studies on double standards, attribution bias, leniency bias, recall bias, and polarised evaluations.” So what’s the solution? How about…

…rather than advising women on how to push ahead and make them work harder at it than the men, you put positive bias in the system and start sponsoring them instead?

Another piece of research published on HBR (10) reported that where traditional diversity programmes had largely failed, engaging leaders in the business in solving the problem and encouraging social accountability for the results resulted in dramatically better outcomes. Those made accountable for the results started to feel ownership for it and therefore began sponsoring women and using their own influence to affect change.

The third lesson from disruptors is to pick one problem and obsess about solving that as well as possible, testing and iterating your solution until you get it right.

What is the one thing that would make a real difference in your organisation?

Another commonly held belief is that we don’t have enough women in senior leadership positions because they leave the company around the time that they start families. At Accenture, where I used to work, deeper analysis of the issues showed that, in fact, quite the opposite was true.

Women with families were amongst the most loyal employees in the company – they were not leaving, they were stalling. The data also revealed that one of the most critical stages of the consulting career – the few years prior to making MD (“Partner”), tended to coincide with the time to start a family. And if the babies came first, the women were highly unlikely to progress to partner in the subsequent years, even after returning to work. As a consequence, one of the company’s key objectives became to accelerate women’s MD promotions, reducing the average time to MD by a couple of years.

Another interesting approach is offered by Joan Williams in ‘Hacking tech’s diversity problem’ (11) . She recommends companies to learn from the lean start up playbook – to collect detailed data about gender bias in daily workplace interactions, identify ‘interrupters’ to experiment with, and trial things until you get it right.

But let’s be clear: none of this will happen without the commitment and focus from senior leadership.

If you believe that a more gender balanced workforce will deliver better business results, you should approach it just as systemically as you would any other change – setting objectives (yes, this means targets), making people accountable, identifying measures to track progress and identifying action plans. Although the last one you should leave to the accountable parties, so that they can engage in the problem and the solution – understanding their customer, challenging the status quo and setting out their action plans.

If it was you, what would you do? We’d love to know.

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(1) Forbes most innovative companies in the world:

(2) FTSE 100 companies list, MG own research to identify the head of innovation / chief innovation officer / global innovation director



(5) According to Deloitte, better support for women entrepreneurs could provide £100bn boost to UK economy (