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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?

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