If one mentions the names Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci, do you notice a pattern?
All are famous inventors – and the subjects of exhaustively researched biographies by American author Walter Isaacson. In some ways, they comprise the pantheon of inventors in our culture. And all are men.
Mr. Isaacson did turn the spotlight in his most recent book onto Jennifer Doudna, the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on gene editing. And in his prior compendium The Innovators, he featured Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and Jean Jennings for their role in computing, but alongside – or perhaps more accurately, buried among – about 60 men.
The point is not to question Mr. Isaacson’s accuracy or open-mindedness in judging inventors, but rather to think about what we’re missing when the story of invention is so skewed. We know, for instance, how the effectiveness of advertising suffers when women are missing from ad agencies and corporate marketing departments – even though women are often the prime purchasers in their families – and the process of invention in many cases is just one step earlier in the process of reaching out to consumers.
Take two examples: the wheeled suitcase and the electric car. It took years for the wheeled suitcase to be developed, because more men at the time were the main travellers, and when families journeyed together, men tended to lug the suitcases. Men tend to take pride in their strength, so they proudly sweated through the burden of carrying the bulky baggage.
Or maybe it’s deeper than that sense of obligation: Men even rebelled when a smart grocery-chain owner devised the first wheeled grocery cart, figuring shoppers would now be able to buy more than what they could carry, and his bottom line would benefit in the process. Similarly, Bernard Sadow, the inventor of the wheeled suitcase, ran up against macho resistance, with department stores even refusing to stock them.
It was only when another inventor came up with the cabin bag and marketed it to airline crews, who then drew attention wheeling their bags around in airports and hotels in their spiffy uniforms, that it finally caught on – at a time when more women were beginning to travelling alone. “We couldn’t see the genius of the wheeled suitcase because it didn’t align with the prevailing views on masculinity,” Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal notes in her book Mother of Invention.
But the story of another invention with bigger wheels – the automobile – is even more interesting. The first long-distance journey by such a vehicle was carried out by Bertha Benz in 1888 without the knowledge of her inventor husband, Karl. She was hoping to convince him that his invention would have mass appeal if people realized it could help them travel further. Along the way, she and a local shoemaker devised the first brake lining when the vehicle’s brake blocks wore out. Her hatpin also came in handy for unclogging a blockage in the fuel pipe.
But despite her intrepidness, the complications of the gas-powered car – notably its crank – led to it being positioned primarily for men, while women (along with the aged and infirm) drove the more refined early versions of the electric car. “The thing that is effeminate, or that has that reputation, does not find favour with the American man,” an article in the industry magazine Electric Vehicles observed. “Whether or not he is ‘red-blooded’ and ‘virile’ in the physical sense, at least his ideals are.”
It took a tragic incident – a friend of Cadillac Motor Company CEO Henry Leland was helping a stranded woman and the automobile’s crank kicked back and struck him in the jawbone, leading to his death – for things to change. Cadillac developed an electric starter, which eliminated the crank and powered the lights. But it’s only these days that we’re now finally revisiting the fully electric car, no longer a gendered issue. “The electric-car industry built cars for women, but they failed to see that many of the ‘feminine’ qualities their cars possessed were in fact universal,” Swedish author Ms. Marçal writes.
She says technology is seen as what men make from hard metals, often to kill big things. It may well be that the digging stick for women came before the spear for men, but we tend to assume human innovation began with men’s weapons. Not that women didn’t hunt – and it was likely women who invented both the mortar and the millstone, and who figured out how to gather, transport and prepare foods. We have the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, but not the Pottery Age or the Textile Age. Discovering clay can be hardened by heat and used to store food and water was no less technological than the uses of bronze and iron. But the work of women was missed – certainly by Voltaire, who wrote, “There have been very learned women as there have been women warriors, but there has never been women inventors.”
There certainly have been – and we need more. The tendency of venture capitalists to be primarily male and to favour male entrepreneurs is one of many modern-day challenges to be addressed. “When 97 per cent of all venture capital goes to men, something is fundamentally wrong with the entire model – with how we view risk, innovation and entrepreneurship,” Ms. Marçal warns. “When we realize just how many people we have ignored for various reasons, we also realize how much untapped human potential we are actually sitting on.”
Yes, many inventions that were aimed at women came from men, but we have to wonder what else is missing. Ms. Marçal argues we have been inventing with one hand tied behind our backs – and need to cut the rope as we face major challenges such as climate change, or how to handle robotic technology and artificial intelligence, in a humane way.
- When you’re uncertain about initiating a difficult conversation, consultant Nathan Magnuson urges you to ask: What is the cost of not having this discussion?
- In hybrid meetings, it is more important than ever that remote participants turn their cameras on in order to show their full presence, communications consultants Sarah Gershman and Rae Ringel advise. They suggest you can level the playing field by asking in-person participants to bring their laptops and turn their cameras on, keeping themselves on mute when not speaking.
- Leadership guru Tom Peters says if a leadership team does not have a significant share of women, that organization “is making a first-order strategic performance error.”
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