There’s a funny moment in Pulp Fiction where Vincent Vega wins an argument on whether a certain type of physical therapy has sexual overtones. The issue is settled when he asks fellow hit man Jules Winnfield:
“Would you give foot massage to a guy?”
The scene makes us laugh because it shows the absurdity in categorising phenomena based on who is–or who we think is–at their receiving end.
I thought about that the other day when me and my colleagues had the great fortune of getting to huddle around the digital camp fire together with writer/thinker Katrine Marçal, to engage in a conversation about her recently published book Mother of Invention : How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Men.
In it she argues that certain innovations hit a glass ceiling in spite of having great value propositions, and that one or both of the following factors often explains why:
- The idea is spawned by a woman
- it addresses what is seen as a female concern
As sad as the first of these factors is, I’m optimistic that the problem is about to fix itself. It’s a crying shame that only one percent of Swedish VC money currently goes to companies with women in the founder-team, but the world of venture capital is fiercely competitive and quick to pick up on trends backed by metrics. And more and more now, it’s starting to look like a dude-centric culture is simply bad for business.
Marçal points to the fact that female-founded startups are usually turning a profit quicker and generates more jobs compared to companies founded by men, and when venture capitalist Nora Bavey was recently profiled in Dagens Nyheter she explains how companies with at least one female founder yields 45 percent higher revenue per invested krona.
What I find even more interesting though, is the fact that it’s proving to be a huge competitive edge for venture capital firms to have general partners of both sexes. This article in Harvard Business Review says that mixed-sex-VC’s perform drastically better when it comes to shepherding female-led startups to acquisition or IPO.
So once a tipping point is reached–and I believe we’re just about getting there now–gender balanced investment firms will simply become the new norm.
The second factor gives pause. So the idea is that some inventions get a kiss of death simply because they’re associated with the female sphere. Marçal illustrates this with the story of the false start of the electric car.
It’s a little known fact that at the turn of the last century one third of all cars in Europe were electric. To put that in perspective, we’re at about one percent right now.
Electric cars were clean, silent and could be started with the push of a dashboard button. Range was more than enough for the short intra-city distances most often traveled, and charging networks had great coverage. Electric clearly won the convenience battle and could have been a totally viable contender to the gasoline powered alternative
And still, while electric cars were built by men, they were marketed to women (even Henry Ford’s wife drove one!) And that turned out to be fatal. Because at the end of the day most families could only afford one car and when it came down to it, that car was going to have to be a man-car.
Everyday expressions like man-made and mankind reveal deeply embedded thought patterns that explains this type of psychodynamics; we’re simply used to let men represent all of humanity and consequently suspicious of any innovation that are ”niched” to meet the need of the other half of the population. A fancier term for that suspicion is gender contamination , and it can come in many flavours.
Take an innocuous product like the shopping cart. Its inventor had to hire actors who pretended to shop for groceries using the novel contraption, before people eventually felt okay with using one themselves.
How is that a case of gender contamination? Well, the shopping cart implicitly told men that women no longer needed their help. Which is exactly the same reason it took so long for the roller bag to gain traction. Think about it, if there was ever a no-brainer value proposition this must be it: a simple little fix that literally takes a load off its users shoulders. Still it was one of those inventions that almost didn’t make it to the market and the reason is so provocatively annoying; it was perceived as a challenge to the male ego!
(Side-note: This perspective is confirmed by a memorable scene in Karl-Ove Knausgård’s epic My Struggle, where the author describes the shameful anxiety of being perceived as unmanly, that keeps him from using one of these little shopping baskets that you drag behind you instead of carrying.)
The startup universe is in many ways a haven of diversity. At a technical university that is perhaps more evident than anywhere; the entrepreneurs I work with daily come from *all* corners of the world. That they’re mostly male can easily be over-shadowed by the fact that this group is off the charts as measured by diversity in terms of skin color, religion, language and cultural background.
That’s why Katrine Marçal’s latest book is such an important one. It shines a light on a collective blind spot, the delusion that ours is a meritocracy where the best ideas always win. That has clearly not been true historically, where the word technology itself has often been equated with ”things that men do”.
One can only hope that we’re now ready to sober up and start acknowledging that women has always been just as brilliantly ingenious innovators as men, even if the fruits of their efforts have often gone to ruin due to a horribly biased system.
That’s a bug we can’t afford to not fix.