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Is Innovation Still a Male Feat?

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Jesus, Krishna, Budha, Leonardo Da Vinci, Renoir, Vincent, Einstein, Freud, Nietzche, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali, Dalai Lama, Herman Hess, Stevenson, Edison and Steve Jobs have two things in common with each other; they are all known as thought leaders, inventors, innovators and they are all men. One wonders why is there this conspicuous absence of name of a woman in a list that kinds of define the space which marks considerable progress in terms of thought elevation or reality of this world

It is not that there have not been famous women, but it so happens that an invention or thought leadership is seldom associated with Women. While the world is increasingly becoming a place where women are becoming a dominant force at work, you still don't have a certain Ms Jobs who is associated with innovation and the one who could drive a cult following that Jobs has been able to achieve.

It is not such a surprise after all that God's gender in most cultures is perceived as male. Mary Ann Evans adopted a masculine pen name of George Eliot only for a reason. It is not that women writers were unheard of in 18th century England, but for the simple reason that she wanted to make sure her writing was taken seriously, as most of the women writers were perceived to be writing only romantic novels at that time.

The facts that the figureheads of religion, philosophy and science have all been male may not be very comforting but understandable for a time when women were really treated as unequal to men culturally, politically and from a civil rights point of view. However, today, when equal opportunities, education, training, political and civil rights are equal for women and men, associating innovation with women is still very difficult. The list of twenty first century innovators or change makers is still dominated with Men, be it Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. It will still take some more time to accept a woman president for United States of America by Americans.

The audacity of pioneering whether it is thought, philosophy, or technology remains a man's domain. It is also perceived as a world, and not wrongly so, where men innovate for men. It is not for no reason that men are considered the early adaptors of technology apparently for the same reason.

However, there is a change that is happening, albeit at a very subtle level. If Marie Curie pushed the envelope in a scientific world, Gro Harlem Brundlandt did the same in a political-social space. There are women leaders today in financial, banking and corporate world who have created a space for themselves, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer as an example, but one cannot compare Sheryl Sandberg to Steve Jobs.

Perception of Women as nurturers, care givers and the ones who have to run their families haven't changed very much. What has changed perhaps is the fact that they are usually not stopped from pursuing their own interests if they like to. So, women, in most cases have tough choices to make to do a balancing act of managing family vs pursuing their interests. This may never boil down to the single mindedness with which men are able to pursue their own interests. If the lack of opportunity to follow the pursuits of interest is one point in question, the sheer audacity of challenging what has been created by a man before is not easy to overcome.

Innovation does not work in isolation; it has an entire set of paraphernalia that has to work for an innovation to succeed. Be it Carolina inventors Wright brothers or Pasteur, they were working in systems where invention was linked to patents and quick commercialization etc. The question is if the entire invention infrastructure works the same way for a woman as it does for a man? Or alternatively, one could ask a question that if Steve Jobs were a woman, would she be as successful? For those who may say yes, may argue that he was a success because of his sense of design, so yes he could be as successful, and there would be others who would say he was successful because of the sharp business sense, being ruthless in his pursuit of perfection, an ability to hire, fire, get fired and get hired by your own company and a sense of focus for what you are wanting to create. It is not impossible to see all those traits in a woman, but extremely difficult. So, it cannot be said with certainty that a certain Ms Jobs would be as successful as Mr Job. However, it can also not be said, that whatever he achieved is purely because of his gender. Not everyone is Steve Jobs.

For women, it may be a problem to invent because the entire ecosystem is still very much masculine. The Vendors, Venture Funds, colleagues, bankers, lobby groups are still a male domain and all of that does make a difference.

Having said that, it has been very pleasant to see one Aung San Suu Kyi melt the heart of millions of Burmese, and force the very male dominated Junta to hold elections in a country that did not see light of hope over many decades. It has also been heartening to see the face of a woman leading the show at communicating discovery of 'Higgs Boson' that has been a recent moment of exhilaration for many. While these are very symbolic, what is required is the change in every connected sphere that promotes innovation whether in science or technology. It is not one tech innovator among women that may be able to change the landscape of innovating in technology space, there has to be a string of women, who could change that mind set and bring a change in the gender of innovation. Till then, women will be considered later adapters of technology and will be at receiving end of what men make for them. Will it change in the current generation's lifetime? It is not impossible to imagine, but still difficult to realize.