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4 ways to get more women involved in innovation

Future of Work|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent
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By Karen O’Leonard | March 5, 2021

If you want a more diverse group of people involved in innovation, think about how your program works.

Historically, innovation has been dominated by men. If you think about the modern icons of business innovation, names that come to mind typically include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, to name a few. In fact, as of 2019, just 13% of all U.S. inventors receiving patents were women. And according to other research, the profile of the typical entrepreneur tends to be a white, educated male in his 20s or 30s.

I’ve had first-hand experience with this as well. In the years I spent in Silicon Valley working in product development, most of my colleagues were men. But I also had the pleasure and privilege of working alongside some amazing female product managers and engineering leads.

So when I took on an innovation leadership role at Willis Towers Watson, I wanted to make sure that women in our company had a voice. Unlike many tech firms, our company has about as many women colleagues as men, so I figured it would be fairly easy to get women involved.

But it wasn’t as easy as I expected. I was dismayed by our first few innovation challenges, in which more than 75% of the ideas were proposed by men. Furthermore, all of the winning ideas selected to move forward were from men. I was flummoxed. Why weren’t more women getting involved? What could we do to encourage more women to step forward?

I posed this question to friends and colleagues. I also turned to the large body of research published on gender differences in competition and risk-taking. After all, proposing an idea, whether it’s to your leadership or as part of an innovation competition, is taking a risk. Your idea is often competing against others for funding or resources. In innovation challenges, a select number of ideas are chosen as “winners.” So the competitive aspect is there. From a risk-taking perspective, colleagues who put forward their ideas may feel they are risking their reputations (what if my colleagues or leaders think my idea is stupid?) and they risk rejection (what if the judges or leadership turn it down?)

Moving to a team-based approach to innovation

One of the takeaways from my research was that women may feel more comfortable creating and proposing new ideas as part of a team, rather than individually. If you work as part of the team, the risk to your personal reputation and the fear of rejection are minimized, since the whole team will be impacted, not just you.

In addition, research indicates that women may favor team-based competitions because they tend to have less confidence in their own abilities and more confidence in their teammates’ abilities (versus men, who tend to have ample confidence in their own abilities and prefer to work alone).

These gender differences depend on various cultural attributes as well, which I won’t get into here. But I welcome you to look into these studies, many of which are fascinating (including one study published by my brother-in-law, a professor at University of Maryland).

I shared these perspectives with my team, and we decided to incorporate these learnings into the innovation challenges we run at our company.

Here are four changes we made to increase the number of women engaged in innovation:

  1. Encourage colleagues to work on their idea proposals in teams. This approach not only engaged more women in the innovation process, but also improved the quality of ideas through incorporating greater diversity of perspectives. For most innovation challenges, we encouraged, but did not require, colleagues to work in teams. We did run one innovation competition, however, in which we required all idea proposals to be submitted by teams and gave extra points to teams that had a diversity of colleagues in terms of roles, office locations, seniority and gender.
  2. Enable colleagues to submit ideas anonymously. Our system from BrightIdea made this possible. If colleagues didn’t want their names publicized in relation to the idea proposals, that was okay. Only the platform administrators would know who submitted an idea. That eliminated a lot of the perceived risks around reputation and rejection. And it also reduced the bias inherent in judging ideas.
  3. Think about the “cost” of a winning idea. Originally, colleagues who submitted the winning ideas for our annual all-colleague innovation challenge were expected to take four months out of their jobs to lead the innovation project. For some colleagues, spending four months away from their day jobs to be an entrepreneur is a dream come true. But we recognized that this component introduced an added layer of risk and uncertainty for colleagues who have never led an innovation project and didn’t know what to expect, or who worried about taking so much time away from their day jobs. So we eliminated this expectation and told colleagues that they didn’t have to take months out of their jobs if they didn’t want to. We would find another colleague to lead the project, and they could play an advisory role.
  4. Consider how to get women’s attention. We made a concerted effort to include women in our communications around innovation activities. We included video interviews from women innovators, prominently displayed women’s accomplishments and bios on our web pages, and added women figures in our online and physical communications. (Remember office posters?) All of these efforts were meant to help women see themselves as innovators.

So what happened? I’m happy to report that this past year, the number of women proposing ideas in our annual all-colleague innovation challenge rose by about half. And these ideas were top-notch: The majority of finalists were women. And it gets better – one of the winning finalists was a woman – the first ever.

And remember that competition I mentioned earlier, in which we required colleagues to work in teams rather than individually? In that innovation challenge, well over half of the team members who participated were women (the highest proportion ever), and all four of the winning teams were led by women.

Obviously these are great results. But this is not to say we have this figured out. In some other areas of innovation, we still have work to do to engage more women as well as other underrepresented groups. But it’s a start. And it won’t get better unless we focus on it. Willis Towers Watson has a stated goal of incorporating more women and diversity into its leadership ranks. That will certainly help to encourage more women to bring their ideas forward. My mantra now is that innovation is a team sport, and that team should be diverse.

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Head of Innovation

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