Where the women are

Women Piloting Innovation
What happens when you bring a room full of successful, dynamic and passionate women together to talk about innovation? They discuss how the workplace has changed in the last 40 years, why women are still dealing with a gender divide at work, and how the future of innovation in science, technology and the arts requires women.

Women Piloting Innovation, a panel discussion held at MaRS in partnership with Nightwood Theatre last week, set out to find out how we can build an innovation economy that harnesses the capacity and creative energy of women.

The five panelists agreed that women do bring something different to the workplace – whether it’s weaving ideas together or navigating assumptions, women have a particular set of skills that allow them to see things differently than men. These skills are crucial to the future of innovation, especially as women continue to spark new ideas.

What do women do differently when it comes to innovation? Here’s what panelists had to say:

  • Jo Coombe, VP of strategic accounts at Bullfrog Power, believes that women have a unique ability to create new business models based on new ways of thinking. “Women entrepreneurs are able to do [this] because we have to navigate around the invisible assumptions that are still in place in the workplace. We’re not even aware that these assumptions are constraining innovation,” she says.
  • “Women are very, very practical,” says Kerri Golden, entrepreneur and investor, “and able to connect the dots—women can say, ‘what I learned over here can be applied there.’”
  • Lib Gibson, former CEO of Bell Globemedia Interactive, says, “Women should be involved in innovation because the future will require skills of discovery.” Women have the discovery skills that allow them to fuel collaboration, and collaboration leads to innovation. “Innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines,” says Gibson.
  • Megan Mitchell, former director of leadership development and innovation at Johnson & Johnson, believes that women make time to do more things. By doing more, women are exposed to more and make more connections.
  • Women don’t divide business and personal like men, says Rona Maynard, former editor of Chatelaine. “What women learn at home, with our families, affects how we operate in the workplace,” she says.

Women have come a long way since Maynard entered the workforce in the 1970s – she recalls the advice she was given: “Buy a navy blue suit and a blouse with kitty cat bow. Learn to talk about sports, even if you don’t like sports.” – but women still face challenges in entrepreneurship and innovation.

In particular, women are underrepresented in the capital markets. “Men want to know where the money is and where it’s going,” says Golden. At a recent venture capital conference, Golden was one of 20 women in a group of 400 VCs. “There was no line-up for the women’s washroom. But then I realized that all the deals were happening in the men’s room,” she said. On this observation, Gibson chimed in, “I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as the glass ceiling. Just the urinal wall.”

So what can women do to break through this divide and continue the work that these, and other women, have done so far? Panelists offered the following advice to young women who are interested in fueling innovation:

  • Determine how you can bring your whole self, and the best of yourself, to work every day.
  • Remain optimistic about your abilities to advance your career.
  • Set high expectations for yourself.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of pulling heroics; don’t burn yourself out.
  • Stay connected to your passions – they will be your source of inspiration.
  • Remember that leaders are judged on the contributions of their team.
  • Support others.

This advice is relevant to anyone who is interested in fueling innovation, not just women. To succeed, as any person in any field, one needs to be innovative and support innovation in others.

What other advice can you share with budding young innovators?

To learn more about Nightwood Theatre, Canada’s oldest professional women’s theatre company, visit www.nightwoodtheatre.net.

Get the blow-by-blow report on this event on Twitter from Geraldine Cahill and Allyson Hewitt.