Ice Cream Maker
Nancy JOHNSON, (1795-1890) invented the hand-cranked ice cream freezing machine in 1843

One of the challenges of teaching lies in helping students identify, confront and hopefully overcome their implicit assumptions and biases. When it comes to teaching innovation, this ranges from asking and answering questions such as

  • What is innovation? Is it different from invention or creativity?
  • Who is an innovator? Are they born or made?

In part to answer the second question, we do an exercise. Each student has to name two innovators of their choice and try to identify what attributes they’ve demonstrated as innovators. Much to my chagrin, year after year Steve Jobs and Elon Musk (more recently) are the first choices of most 19-year-olds that I teach. Thanks to my colleague Stephen Golden, later in the same class, we make them do an exercise around naming women or minority entrepreneurs. The exercise invariably results in both the students and I being surprised with the number of innovators that we should be aware of but aren’t.

In her book Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men Katrine Marçal brings up a related point. Not only do women entrepreneurs not get the visibility, but often inventions that seem to benefit primarily women do not easily gain traction. The particular example she cites is the matter of a wheeled suitcase.

The rolling suitcase is far from the only example. When electric cars first emerged in the 1800s they came to be seen as “feminine” simply because they were slower and less dangerous. This held back the size of the electric car market, especially in the US, and contributed to us building a world for petrol-driven cars. When electric starters for petrol-driven cars were developed they were also considered to be something for the ladies. The assumption was that only women were demanding the type of safety measures that meant being able to start your car without having to crank it at risk of injury. Ideas about gender similarly delayed our efforts to meet the technological challenges of producing closed cars because it was seen as “unmanly” to have a roof on your car.

Marçal, “Mystery of the Wheelie Suitcase.”

Studies show that this gender (and other forms of) bias, stretches beyond tech

As with any problem that afflicts our communities or organization, the solutions have to begin with us. The first step is to educate ourselves and to begin conversations with others to both acknowledge the problem and to seek solutions. This post is a baby step and in future posts I’ll share both innovators who need to be known and what we can possibly do to address these inequities.