Should we be starting single sex Innovation Labs?

10 04 2012
Stephen Dubner of “Freaknomics” fame recently tackled an interesting aspect of innovation on the NPR show “Marketplace” . In the show he pointed to a patent gap – namely the gender gap in patent applications.

Apparently women are only responsible for 7.5% of all patents filed and Jenny Hunt, an economist at Rutgers University reckoned that closing that male to female patent gap in science and engineering could have a dramatic effect on the economy – raising it by up to 2.7% – a pretty sizeable gain.

There are multiple reasons for this gap existing – but one of the most interesting ones that were discussed was the relative attitude towards risk between the sexes. Specifically, men are bigger risk takers than women.

Why would this be important? Well, Innovation, after all, is a risky endeavor – with average new product failure rates still hovering at the 75% level, you have to be reasonably thick skinned and willing to “go big” occasionally in order to achieve noticeable results. You have to, in short, have a reasonable tolerance for taking on risk.

Allison Booth, a British economist, cooked up an experiment that looked at the male/female risk gap by measuring the relative risk in choices between various student groups of women and/or men. She found that women who were in single sex groups were exhibiting similar risk profiles to the men who were in single sex groups. However, the women who were in co-educational groups were making less risky choices. It seemed that women were competing more aggresively (by taking bigger chances to win) when they were up against other women – but would defer/dial it down when men were also in the group.

I guess this shouldn’t come as to much of a surprise as you only need to look at the school tables in the UK to see that single sex schools tend to dominate the top of the leaderboards – especially with regards to female education – but does this mean that maybe we should continue this segregation beyond the development years?

Potential legal issues aside, would we gain more from a segregated workforce? Should we start setting up single sex Innovation Labs to maximize the competitive elements that drive creativity? Would we double the amount of innovation happening in our companies by segregating staff into men/women-only divisions?

Sounds counterintuitive – but maybe it would work – what do you think?



7 responses

10 04 2012
Steven Parsons

Im not sure that it matters if there is a gap? Women are excelling in other areas. Perhaps they are smart enough to keep things secret, A patent lets people know how to copy your idea…
Or perhaps women are just modest and don’t care who puts their name to an invention. The focus is on the next innovation, not on the fame and the profit.

10 04 2012
Anne Elliott Merica

As a woman who holds three patents, but took over nine years and $100,000 to get them, I can tell you it is more likely that the existing gender gaps in pay and responsibility for child care are much more likely to be root causes. Add to that the underrepresentation of women in science and technology- fields which encourage the pursuit of patents- and you have a much higher barrier to entry. But innovation can happen in other fields too if we let it. We need more innovation, regardless of gender, to grow a stalled economy. Providing encouragement of creativity and problem solving in younger kids rather than endless testing for standardized results would help.

16 04 2012
The SDG Group (@ThinkSDG)

There are a lot of reasons, good and bad, for the gap we see here. I think that it is more important to understand it so that it can be closed.
I would be interested to see if this gap is the historical gap taking into consideration decades of work, or if it is a snapshot of a certain time.
My gut, which could be wrong, is that if we look at a more recent snapshot we might see that women are better represented in the patent landscape.
I worked at a science and technology company where women were well represented. I also wrote a post on my blog about why women were hard wired to be great innovators.
I wouldn’t be too quick to “blame” anything for what we see… would rather see us come up with a plan to impact it positively.

23 04 2012
Dana Theus

Great subject and very provocative proposition. I think this matters a lot, for the reasons mentioned and for many more. I spend an inordinate amount of my time researching this issue (women’s contribution, and gap closure strategies) in the broader business realm and I am aware of the research you cite about women taking more risk in single-sex environments. There are lots of reasons for this, most of which are cultural though not all. Here are two additional ideas I can add to the discussion:

1) I’m not so sure that we really understand how women and risk get along. I wrote about it more extensively here ( but in looking at various studies on women and risk-taking it’s not clear they’re using a common definition of risk. There’s the wing-and-a-prayer risk that women seem to shy away from in favor of more considered risk. IE, there are different kinds of risk and women and men seem predisposed to different flavors. Both have their strengths and are needed. In the research realm I suppose it can be argued that wing-and-a-prayer risk is more valuable? I don’t know. What do you think? If that’s the case, then maybe women-only research teams would be a good addition to the mix.

2) In the business realm, it’s pretty clear that single sex teams are NOT more productive, but that gender balanced teams are ( We don’t have a sample size of female-dominant businesses to compare, but when comparing male-dominant businesses* to those where women hold 30%+ of the leadership positions, profitability and productivity dramatically increase. The reason for this is complex but based on a broad spectrum of research it seems to stem from the fact that in groups where neither sex is in the minority, they bring out each other’s strengths when it comes to group intelligence, emotional intelligence, individual intelligence and social intelligence. Together we’re stronger. Again, in a scientific context I don’t know how this would translate, but I’d put my bets on gender-partnered teams over gender-dominant ones.

One thing I’ll say about this post is that it falls prey to a bias that we ALL have (myself included), which is to fall into polarity talking about this subject. Women/men, male/female, feminine/masculine – it’s virtually impossible to discuss this subject without falling heavily towards one end or the other. I’m struggling to find language to discuss the balance, where both aspects contribute equally. Gendership?

Thoughts are welcome. Thanks for generating the great dialog on an important subject.

*by “male-dominant businesses” I mean those where there are few or no women in leadership positions (board level or CSuite, typically) consistently over the past 4 years.

22 06 2012
Christian Schumacher

Interesting but surprising study, and interesting thoughts. Yet I wonder and doubt how representative such a study really is. After 20 years experience in R&D and innovation management, I think one really needs creative and innovative thinkers and a corporate culture that allows creativity. Independent from sex. I cannot imaging that a pool of female-only scientists can do a better job.

3 08 2012
Boris Pluskowski

Hi All – thanks so much for your responses – I’ve been terribly negligent in responding to people of late – so apologies in advance for the mass reply here:

Steve – it’s not really the fame/profit element that caught my eye here as much as it was the group dynamics – if we agree that big innovation relies on being able to see/take big risks, then surely we’d want to encourage an environment where all barriers to risk taking are removed (as much as possible) – in this case, the research would seem to suggest that single sex innovation labs would provide that so as to remove the effect seen in the research where women took less risks in the mixed environment.

Anne – first of all, Bravo – 3 patents is impressive – and 9 years and 100K isn’t too bad as long as the returns from those patents were in scale with the effort of getting them 🙂 Secondly – agree with you that there are other issues providing effective barriers to women being as innovation-producing as possible – pay gaps and child rearing duties included. Thirdly, and at the risk of looking like one of those nodding bobble head dolls with all the agreeing I’m doing here, I’ve never seen innovation as an R&D function – but rather as an organisational wide capability for driving change throughout the org – innovation needs to be across all aspects of the innovation so as to capture the next generation of competitive advantage wherever that may come from. From a Macro-Economical perspective this is critical to driving the next source of prosperity for the populace – from a corporate perspective, it’s live or die – you only need to look at the fortune of companies like Nokia to see that effect – a long time survivor and leader in multiple industries as it embraced each new change to go from lumber company to rubber to TVs to mobiles….only to falter and now arguably sliding quickly on its arse to doom since it stopped changing. The Innovator’s Dilemma in true fashion here!

SDG Group – thanks for the comments – my observations however were less about the overall representation of women in the workplace, but rather how to optimize the environment to maximise the overall innovation output – hence the question on whether or not we should build single sex Innovation labs – would we have a bigger output that way?

Dana – wow – thanks for the considerable response and super-cool to get someone who’s researched this area thoroughly like yourself chiming in on the conversation!
So 1) Wing-on-a-prayer vs Considered risk in Innovation is a really interesting question. On the one side, considered and planned innovation and risk taking is certainly a big rationale behind most corporate innovation programs – not only identifying, but directing and controlling the organisational risk taking – but it’s also known that too much control (consideration?) tends to end up resulting in primarily incremental innovation, not the truly breakthrough stuff, which by definition would tend to break the rules you set up to evaluate the ideas. So I guess the answer is you need both depending on what you’re trying to do and the ideal mix for your goals. Maybe that means we need to have female only labs focused on improving our existing products incrementally and male-only/mixed labs search for generations out? Interesting proposition…
2) I think the difficulty in this conversation comes not just from the points you mentioned, but also then bringing “productivity” into the mix – I’ve also seen plenty of surveys claiming multiple reasons why mixed works better – you mention a lot of good ones there – however, Innovation isn’t a quantity game for the most part, but rather a quality one (which is one reason why so many companies have a high failure rate in innovation – they decide to play a numbers game primarily) – Also, am surprised there’s no sample size of female dominated businesses – would’ve thought industries like Fashion maybe might have higher numbers? Again – great input and thanks for the thoughtful reply!

Christian – thanks for the input and I agree -not sure it has an impact – but nevertheless an interesting question to consider, no? 🙂

Thanks all!


19 07 2013

No, it definitely wouldn’t work. As a woman in that 7.5% category I would say that if you’re a risk taking innovator/inventor you’re going to do it no matter who your competition is. Making single sex labs would only hinder innovation.

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