6 May 2020

Ekaterina Petrova: The role of women in the innovation business

Even in 2020, it is still quite uncommon for women to lead innovation companies and technology startups. Why is it so, and what will help the "weaker" sex to defend its right to participate in promising projects?

Every year, more and more foreign and Russian companies open their own innovation hubs, laboratories and R&D centers, implement advanced solutions and test the technologies from the most promising and competitive startups. The number of pilots launched is used as a KPI by many companies, and the "open innovation" approach appears in almost every business plan of major industry players.

Another world-wide trend that is now at the peak of popularity is "women empowerment", which means giving women more rights and opportunities. This notion has become the cornerstone of the most iconic events and has an influence on almost all aspects of life.

According to a report by the International Labor Organization, as at March 1, 2020, the share of women engaged in the innovation industry was only 16.1%. If you take business as a whole, the ratio of men to women would not be much different either.

Surprisingly, in the twenty-first century, the world still faces gender inequality, even in the industries where there should be none. Speaking about innovations, it is especially interesting to see why such a progressive field can sometimes be marked with such an unprogressive tendency.

At the meeting of the Committee on Development and Intellectual Property (CDIP) in September 2019, the WIPO General Assembly admitted that it was necessary for the whole world to:

  • create opportunities to achieve gender equality;
  • empower the women engaged in innovative and creative activities;
  • integrate a gender perspective into intellectual property policies and promote an inclusive and accessible system (to narrow the gender gap and increase the participation of women and girls in the search for innovative solutions to the major challenges humanity faces).

The Committee on Development and Intellectual Property also highlighted in its report that WIPO had found that women were more active than ever in using the international patent system, although gender parity was still far from being achieved.

The changes, although not very fast, are obviously visible and are going in the positive direction. However, despite some positive signals, much more needs to be done to achieve gender equality. A report from Innovations UK indicates that 1/3 of the women surveyed experienced difficulties in building their careers because of their gender as the main cause.

Inequalities at the beginning of a career path

In fact, gender inequality problems usually start with the university. Statistics show that most female entrepreneurs have graduated from technical universities. However, if we take a technical university, most girls face very ambiguous attitude from some teachers during their studies there. This makes female students doubt themselves, thinking that they have a much lower chance of passing exams with an “excellent” mark than male students.

In the minds of some technical university professors, there is still a perception that technical professions are a priori more suitable for men. For example, I and my fellow students could never pass some of the exams with an "excellent" mark from the first time, we always got a "good" mark. But we did not despair and went to retake the exams, because we wanted to show teachers that girls were also able to master technical specialties no worse than men.

Surprisingly, this is exactly the attitude that helps many girls to form up their character and motivates them to further get into the processes and understand complex disciplines, proving to themselves and others that it is not a matter of gender. By the way, it is such ambitious individuals who later become entrepreneurs and managers. The structured approach, attention to detail and a love of visual aesthetics - those qualities that are so characteristic of the female sex - complement the technical skills very well.

The situation in Russia

When it comes to innovation and the gender ratio, the statistics in Russia are changing quite positively. Some two years ago, female founders of the startups that took part in acceleration programs accounted for 30%, while males accounted for 70%. Now we are witnessing the growth of women's entrepreneurship: in our country many support programs are being launched, communities are being created that contribute to the development in this field. Therefore, in 2020 there is a probability that the indicator will reach the ratio of 50% to 50%. Such changes indicate that innovation activity in Russia is moving in the right direction and is in step with many progressive countries in this respect.

But it would be wrong to say that it is easy for women to do business. The majority of industries in Russia, and in the whole world as well, are still shaped up by men. The average management level and top managers of big companies are also mostly men.

There is an ingrained opinion in our country on the subject of women's professional competence. There is a prejudice that if you are a woman, then business is not an area where you need to develop and improve yourself. Also, there is some skepticism about your skills. Despite the progressive trends in the world, we still face this problem in Russia. It's very difficult to find the golden mean.

Moreover, unfortunately, there are still some companies in Russia that "judge by appearances". And there is an established opinion that if a woman is young, looks good and takes care of herself, then she is not professional enough and does not have the necessary competence.

As for the West, of course, it is more advanced in this respect, there are more opportunities for women there - various competitions, grant programs. And the environment itself encourages entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, there are not enough development opportunities for women in Russia yet.

How to assert your right to be at the helm

Learn to wait. There are often situations in your career where you just have to wait - if you really want to succeed, you have to keep going, even if it will take longer than usual. If there are a number of factors around you that prevent you from becoming a leader right now, then sometimes you have to step back, so that you can rush forward more vigorously and faster. It happens that not being recognized when you wanted it gives you an even greater incentive and motivation to move higher, to develop leadership qualities, determination, perseverance and to gain more experience in life.

Shift someone else's attention to your business. Changes in the attitude towards women in the innovation business occur only when they start to get very involved in the process and demonstrate to the top management of the company their structural approach and results. Only when you show how you change the internal processes and shape up the environment do they begin taking you seriously. It is important to break the barrier of your age and status as a woman, and make people perceive you through your professional skills and achievements.

Burn with an idea. The desire to change something is what should motivate and drive the women who set up startups and do business. Everything usually starts with an idea. And, unfortunately, a lot of really worthwhile concepts never get implemented, they just burn out. Starting something from scratch is always difficult, it takes a lot of effort and time. But the result is only achieved when your desire to come up with something new is so great that it simply outweighs all other aspects. In any difficulties you always need to look for growth points and new opportunities for self-improvement.

Join women's communities. The importance of forming women's communities cannot be denied, because in addition to business, women may have many common interests and points of contact where opportunities for development can be found. Different sectoral communities help women to better feel that they belong to a particular sphere, to show their expertise on various issues.

Source: RBC Pro

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