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Gender Aware Management for Increased Innovation Capacity

By Marita Svensson

In recent years, the term innovation capacity has come to dominate the Swedish terminology flora in discussions concerning sustainable growth. Innovation capacity is a key factor behind organisations' competitiveness and without it they are in danger of stagnating and in the longer term losing ground and disappearing. Moreover, while the importance of increased innovative power is stressed everywhere in society, paradoxically enough we see that the manner in which many companies are led and organised is neither particularly innovative nor able to take advantage of all their personnel's innovative power. It is becoming ever clearer how crucial standards and values are for corporate success. Therefore, working on promoting equality should form a natural part of the activities of organisations dedicated to creating the preconditions for sustainable growth.

Fiber Optic Valley is an arena for research and development within the areas of broadband, sensor technology and innovative and gender aware management. The Innovation system consists of some 50 members and partners from industry, academia and society. The equality aspect was prioritised from the very beginning, as one of the most important driving forces behind achieving long-term growth targets. Our strategic concentration on gender and innovation has resulted in us today being at the cutting edge of action-oriented gender research both in Sweden and abroad.

Strategic competence provision is one of the most important issues on the Fiber Optic Valley agenda. Becoming a world-class innovation system requires access to the very best workforce, not least at management level. This in turn requires both attractive workplaces and an attractive region to live and reside in.

Power and structures

The equality issue arose already in the planning stage of the innovation system, in connection with analyses of obstacles and challenges to growth. Knowing that there is a strong connection between gender, innovation and sustainable growth, the decision to act was easy. Firstly, a long-term strategy for equality work was developed. The strategy had a clear focus on knowledge development and practical equality work, in close consultation with gender researchers and Fiber Optic Valley's member organisations.

We have engaged in several research projects relating to gender aware leadership since then, which have involved a large number of managers and employees. The research projects show that management must lead the field when engaging in change work. Middle managers in particular wield the power to decide on employees' terms and conditions for performing their work.

Gender aware managers dare to think along new lines. They realise it is all about utilising both men's and women's expertise and they also realise that equality work is good for innovation capacity. A more equal society will probably generate new needs and thus encourage the development of new products and services.

The male standard rules

A natural first step in our strategy was to chart the current situation in the region from an equality and gender perspective. Gävleborg region is characterised by heavy base industry with traditional and hierarchical organisational structures, and we have one of the country's most gender divided labour markets with deeply ingrained patterns. Women and men live in separate worlds during the working day, and there are few women in positions of power. It is men – or to put it more accurately – the male standard that rules. With considerably more well educated women than men in the county, it is a major problem that we have not succeeded in taking advantage of all the competence possessed by women. This is a waste of resources that affects sustainable regional development.

Naturally, we asked ourselves the question of what makes men usually end up at the top of the ladder, taking over management of the companies and organisations which are so important for the development of the region? Despite the fact that the number of women with competitive skills is steadily increasing, these patterns still persist. How does the current gender structure affect companies' innovation and competitiveness, and what will this mean for corporate growth ambitions in the long term?

We chose a strategy which focused on rendering visible and changing behaviour with the aim of creating gender aware and attractive organisations. Since equality is about gender and thus about power and structures, we were also aware that especially the rendering visible of the sex-related distorted division of power and influence would meet great resistance, and the best way of being prepared for this resistance is to create a stable knowledge base on which to stand - knowledge which was based on research and well tried and tested experience.

When we in the spring of 2005 commenced work within our first project, 'Genusnätverket' (the Gender Network), there was a general conviction that the work should build on gender-scientific bases and that changes at organisational level must be led by management, and start with those who held power, i.e. the management. In this way, equality work is not just a peripheral activity but is an integrated part of central organisational processes aimed at enhancing their efficiency and developing them.

To start with, we held several workshops with the managers where we discovered the current situation facing the company. Middle managers in the Gender Network were given homework and knowledge training in the form of lectures and seminars to get to grips with the gender issue. Once they had understood this, they were assigned the task of drawing up action plans and commencing change work in their own companies.

Each organisation had to find its own driving force and the added value of working with gender. The most important reasons for embarking on change work are often related to corporate needs for a values controlled management, strategic skills provision and increased innovation capacity.

Challenging the corporate culture

In our next three-year research project, 'Gen(us)vägar' (Gender shortcuts), our aim was to increase our understanding of the affects of gender on the organisation of innovative processes and how gender labelling can be an obstacle to innovation, how a gender approach challenges corporate culture, contributes to innovations and enhances the efficiency of production. One of the most important factors for the success of this type of project is dedicated people who wish to bring about changes to increase gender awareness, work which often feels both personally challenging and may also meet resistance from colleagues and fellow employees. In such cases, being secure and having the time for reflection in a network plays an important role, in that there is a meeting place for discussion of common challenges and for supporting each other in change work. Common to our research projects is that there are several different networks participating in the process. Using a variety of methods, the network has created learning which provides inspiration for change work in the participants' own organisations.

Positive effects

When awareness about the normative thinking in relation to gender increased, the organisations began to change their internal processes and structures. The result of the change work was that participating organisations became more creative, efficient and profitable by challenging the corporate culture. One of the companies increased its efficiency by nine percent during the project period. Some of the things which contributed to enhancing efficiency are changes to previously inefficient production with a large number of gender-labelled machines and the company rendering standard conceptions which limit activities visible.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 2, 2013