Women for Innovation

March 6, 2015

Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam Vietnam Economic Time

Technology’s transformative promise for societies has never before had more potential, and awareness is building that women might hold the key to unlock the door to progress. On the occasion of international women’s day, public debate around gender often centers on what society needs to do for women. But this is only one part of the discussion.

The broader question is how women can contribute to social transformation in a fundamentally important way. What can women do to encourage innovation – and through innovation, bring about higher growth and shared prosperity?

Equality of opportunity across gender is widely recognized as an identifier of a healthy and prosperous society around the world. The good news is that on this front, Vietnam is ahead on many indicators, such as the enrollment of girls in basic and higher education. Women account for more than 40 percent of scientific researchers in Vietnam, substantially more than just few decades  years ago, and well above the figures for other countries in the region .

However, when it comes to leadership in science and technology – whether in academia or in the private sector – the data shows a different picture:

•    While 40 percent of master’s degree holders are women, they account for only 26 percent of associate professors, and only 10 percent of professors;

•    Just 19 percent of key national science and technology programs were conducted with women as scientific leaders or with a high percentage of women researchers;

•    Of 1,134 Vietnamese individual patent applications in the period 2008-12 from a recent patent database, less than 9 percent were from women.

These figures are, in part, the legacy of the past. As more bright and dedicated young women come through the ranks, more women should reach higher ranks. And it is true that in some of these areas women have made considerable gains in recent years. The point is whether the progress will be sustained.  

We need to encourage young women not only to pursue science and engineering degrees, but also to pursue scientific careers and careers as entrepreneurs. Women innovators may very well pave the way for Vietnam to become a prosperous economy within one generation, indeed it may prove an impossible task without the participation of women scientists and engineers.

Why are women considered to be so critical to innovation?  

A recent study in the academic review Science, examined the determinants of success in teams across a range of tasks – the researchers studied hundreds of teams and explored factors such as the intelligence level of individual team members. A critical factor of success? The proportion of females in the team.

Researchers reason that a motivating factor behind success of teams is social sensitivity – or the abilities of team members to ascertain the spoken and unspoken needs of others and to be able to respond proactively to those needs. Researchers in a follow-up study ascribe the superior ability of women to read complex emotions to success in teamwork. Scientific research with more women researchers in teams is more likely to be breakthrough because the diversity brings about greater creativity and fresh approaches to look at the same problem in a new way.

A study of entrepreneurship found start-ups led by women entrepreneurs tend to perform better. High technology firms established by women generated higher revenues and had higher survival rates. The reason? Women were found to be more resilient to setbacks and persevere in the face of adverse outcomes – perhaps the struggles of our mothers and grandmothers have made us women the stronger sex!

We are at the threshold of a truly transformative revolution in the way things are manufactured through collaborative teams that sometime span the globe.  Wherever tomorrow’s brilliant ideas come from, whatever sectors they affect – from mining for gold to mining for data, it is very clear that the people who will make those ideas come true will have higher skills of analysis, creativity, resilience and social influence.

Societies where more of those groups are led by women, formed only of women or have substantive female members will be ahead of the curve. People working collaboratively in real and virtual groups, are building solutions to current problems and problems whose existence we have not yet realized. It is certain that women will play a critical role for all the solutions – from cleaner energy to smarter appliances.

The women entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers of tomorrow are the girls of today. Parents and educators can work hard to encourage girls to do well in science and mathematics—areas of study that  can charge a child’s imagination early - Vietnam has a strong tradition in this area, that needs to be strengthened and modernized. Industry can make a stronger effort to reach out to girls in high school, at a time when adolescents are considering alternative careers. Successful women engineers can serve as powerful role models. Vietnam will soon have maker spaces – centers of hubs of activities where people get together to collaborate on designing and prototyping innovative products using technology such as 3-D printers. Somewhat on the periphery of the formal education system, such maker spaces can serve to break the mold of outdated beliefs about the capabilities of women in the field of technology. In the formal education system, universities that are successfully able to enroll and graduate more women will prove to be more successful in helping their graduates secure jobs and build a reputation for innovation.

This Women’s Day is not just about celebration and commemoration – it is about an affirmation of the great responsibility that women and men equally share to bring about innovation for a sustainable and prosperous future.