Does gender diversity really impact innovation – no-one seems to know!


As organizations strive for more innovative products and services to compete, does gender diversity represent a missed opportunity?

Added on 10 February 2017 by Phil Anderson

gender balance

While consulting in-depth with 10 senior executives in organizations as widespread as private healthcare, engineering consultancy, examination boards and newspapers, with people working in roles from corporate governance to marketing directors for some of the world’s leading brands, I received the same response – “I’ve never really considered the impact of gender diversity on innovation”.

Now, we must be clear what we mean by “gender diversity” – here we define sex as being male or female and gender as being characteristics which are often associated with masculine or feminine. For an overview of these, please see the table below: (Source – Stefan Cousquer, Ashridge Executive Education).

Traditionally considered masculine Gender balance Traditionally considered feminine
Command & Control   Distributed leadership
Strong - not vulnerable   Weak - vulnerable
Leading   Following
Individualistic   Collective
Alignment (vision & purpose)   Attunement (needs of whole & harmony)
Competitive   Collaboration
Power - positional   Not powerful - relational
Logical   Intuitive
Rational   Irrational / emotional
Mind   Body / heart / nature
Limited family balance needs   Responsible for family balance


In most cases, my questions around the extent to which gender diversity has impacted innovation have invariably been met with silence and blank stares followed by a comment similar to “I’ve never had to think about that” – from men and women across different sectors. Often followed up with “It’s never been a question, I simply appoint people to my team who are right for the job – men, women whoever has the right experience, skills and attitude”.

Whether in newspapers, banking, consultancy, marketing or corporate governance, the same comments emerged. One former banker and senior consultant working in North America, said that his experience was that whilst those sectors are male dominated, they are also very clearly, meritocracies. So, whilst sexism most definitely exists in some parts of these sectors, it’s very much the right person for the job, who can perform at the highest levels and exceed demanding KPIs, as opposed to what sex they are.

Another executive working as a main board director for HR in healthcare in the UK, simply looked at me expressionless and after a pause, she said “In all of my career across numerous blue-chip companies, I’ve never had to consider sex when looking for the right individuals for the role – gender is just not an issue”.

A former CMO of an FMCG organization in North America commented that he had never considered gender diversity when considering innovation in his brands.  He said “when we cast the right people, they have to live the brand. There are women who used a sportier brand and we used to call them ‘burly girls’; those who used a more feminine brand were the ‘girlie girls’; and the women who worked on those brands - feminine for the latter, and women who were marathoners or athletes, for the former”.

“… I need someone with change management experience, or a good change person… and typically those type of people are female” – Learning & Development Director for a large international engineering organization.

The reason given for there often being more women in change, communications, marketing and sales roles and more men in engineering, technical and financial roles is simply historical, and that IS changing. We are now seeing many female A-Level students applying for engineering and physics at university, and 13-year-old girls seriously considering maths and science – in spite of their complaints about “another STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) lecture at school today”.  STEM is being actively promoted to girls throughout UK schools).

So, for most of those I spoke with, someone’s gender is not important, or as Alice Maynard, a campaigner for equality in all its forms, has said “diversity: it’s not sex, it’s diversity of thought we need”. Others mentioned that “diverse boards make better decisions”, a comment which was supported by many when considering teams they have worked in.

Another interviewee, whilst working in a senior role at a UK organization told me that her team began primarily male and became primarily female and both ends were sub-optimal. She said that when women were in the majority “they bullied and picked on the men more than the men picked on the women”. Having a balanced team allowed the two “extremes” of behavior to be balanced out and “avoided wasting time on personal problems”, an issue which came with the largely female team. As with everyone else, she had never considered the masculine / feminine characteristics of individuals when recruiting.

A former CEO of a company in another sector, told me, “Women and men approach things in different ways, getting a balanced input opens eyes to different approaches. The last thing we want is a bunch of ‘yes’ people around the table, they will never challenge; we want different skills and viewpoints.” He went on to say that gender, in our definition, does play a part in this, commenting that he had some feminine men on the team and some masculine men too, and this brought good challenge and diversity to help the whole board.

One corporate governance and legal adviser to FTSE 100 firms told me about a charity in which he is actively involved and where they had moved to an all-female board. This has led to more collegiality, more innovation, more friendships and bolder moves as people know each other better.

And finally, a senior marketer at another FMCG firm, mentioned that, when creating new products one needs certain skills and behaviors as one moves down the New Product Development funnel. At the top, we need to throw ideas around, listen well, encourage others to contribute and be appreciative of all parties. Those sound like “traditionally feminine” characteristics. As the funnel narrows, one needs to be tougher on decisions, be prepared to disappoint others and be more logical and rational with ones’ arguments – “traditionally masculine” characteristics. For this individual, it has never been about this. It has always been about having the right person to do the job who has sufficient emotional intelligence to know when and how to work with people at the right time.

So, I am left with two questions:

  1. Do those people who say they recruit on technical competencies and capabilities really make decisions solely on those criteria? The CEO of an international marketing organization suggests that everyone makes decisions based on emotion. Citing Kahneman in “Thinking fast and thinking slow”, and with his own extensive experience in the field, he knows it’s emotion, followed by justifying those decisions, through logical, post rationalization.

    So, in decisions on recruitment, perhaps behavioral competences are more important than most people realize?
  2. If so few people have ever thought about the benefits of gender diversity, as we define it, then is it time for them to do so; What improvements in performance might prevail as a result? and is this a missed opportunity?

If you would like to talk to us about your views on the answers to these questions, we would love to hear from you.  Do get in touch