Innovation and R&D scene still far from gender equality

30 March 2020 5 min. read

Innovation remains a very male-dominated scene. Although progress is being made and many are making efforts to encourage more women to join the R&D community, it seems that the correlation between gender diversity and innovation is still underestimated. 

According to an in-depth report by consulting firm Ayming (‘The International Innovation Barometer’), research & development teams are overwhelmingly male dominated. 83% of the respondents surveyed stated that fewer than half of those on their innovation teams are women, while a quarter said that fewer than one in ten of their R&D employees are female. 

From a country perspective, Canada ranks among the markets making most progress in diversity. None of the respondents reported working in an organisation where fewer than 10% of their employees are women, and a majority of R&D teams are comprised of between 26% and 50% women. 

What percentage of your innovation/R&D teams is made up of women

France is another market leading the way, with 16% of respondents saying that their teams are made up entirely of women. Fabien Mathieu, a Managing Director at Ayming France, said; “The last 10 to 15 years has seen more women embracing technical engineering studies and becoming passionate about these career paths. It’s been a fantastic move towards gender parity in the domain.” 

However, across the board the R&D industry faces a diversity gap. In the UK for example, one in five R&D teams in the UK are entirely comprised of men. Meanwhile, in automotive, two thirds of teams in the sector feature fewer than one woman in every four employees. Laurie Pilo, a Managing Director at Ayming Benelux, described the situation as “unhealthy”, adding that awareness and cultural attitudes are debit for a large part of the slow progress.

“Almost half of respondents consider gender equality a relatively unimportant matter, with 23% saying that it is “not important at all”. This in turn is impacting the attractiveness of industries in the perception of women: “For the most part, women are less attracted to industries such as automotive because of how our societies have operated historically.” 

That does not necessarily mean R&D teams are rife with prejudice. Pilo suggested: “Either people aren’t aware of how socially diverse groups can affect their bottom line, or employers are simply more concerned with filling the positions with whoever they can find who is capable, irrespective of gender.” 

How important is gender diversity to the success of your organisation’s innovation/R&D efforts

Widening the pool

The key to advancing gender parity lies in widening the female talent pool. Yet in practice, there are a number of structural and cultural obstacles to overcome before more women can be attracted into the field.

So, what tactics can countries and sectors employ to motivate more women to begin a career in research & development? According to the survey results, the top initiative is clear: clear career progression, with 40% saying it's important.

Part of this means getting women into innovation careers in the first place. And more needs to be done to make careers in subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths more appealing. Then, once (more) women are in the field, providing better training will go a long way to retaining them, as argued by 37% of the respondents.

In terms of retention, for women, balancing work with childcare remains a central issue. Businesses can go further than just evening out maternity and paternity leave. Thirty-two per cent of respondents highlighted flexible working opportunities as important to attracting female talent.

How could your business better attract female talent into innovation/R&D roles

Mark Smith, a Managing Director at Ayming UK & Ireland, said: “Rightly or wrongly, in most societies, women are still taking on the lion’s share of the childcare. Until that changes, employers need to focus on allowing parents to work as flexibly as possible.” 

“Remote working may not always be possible as R&D professionals are expected to travel quite a bit for site visits – often for days or weeks at a time. But there are certainly opportunities yet to be seized to use technology to mitigate some of these challenges.” 

Leadership support

Alongside improvements to human resources policies and performance management, commitment from the top is another essential factor to close the gap. “Gender diversity needs to be driven from the top-down. 24% of CEOs say that gender diversity is not important at all – we need to change how diversity is perceived in the boardroom,” said Magdalena Burzynska, a Managing Director at Ayming Poland. 

The authors concluded, “Overall, having more women in R&D will benefit teams, both in terms of plugging skills and reaping the rewards of enhanced productivity. Businesses firstly need to see this value and then act on it. Being innovative in this way would be a wise move.”