20 Jul 2021

How good ideas are ignored in an economy built for men

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:09 pm on 20 July 2021

The story of why it took so long to have suitcases on wheels is the story of how gender shapes innovation, says Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal.

Her book; Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Men argues that excluding women from the economy holds back innovation.

Wheels on suitcases being a powerful example.

A woman with a backpack pulls a suitcase through an airport.

Photo: 123RF

“We've had the technology of the wheel for 5000 years, we've had modern suitcases at least since the 1800s. Why did it take until the 1970s for somebody to put these two things together?

“And really this product didn't really go mainstream until the late 1980s.”

The product was invented in the 1970s, but department stores were unwilling to stock them, she says.

“They thought there wouldn't be a market, men would never adopt this thing. And women they were too small of a market.”

Men would see it as a slight on their masculinity was the thinking, she says.

“Women might accept rolling a suitcase, but women didn't travel alone, if a woman travelled it was with a man who would then of course, to prove his masculinity, have to carry her suitcase for her.”

And then women started to travel for business and everything changed, she says.

“This new product, the rolling suitcase, was initially marketed to this new business woman of the 1980s, the women adapted, and then the men followed.

“This product was met with huge resistance for a very long time and then suddenly boom, it transformed the whole global luggage industry and changed how we travel and how we build airports and airplanes.”

Perceptions of femininity even changed the way we travel, she says, steering society away from electric towards petrol powered cars.

“There were electric cars in the in the 1800s. In London, for example, you could phone up an electric taxi company and an electric car would come and pick you up.”

But then electric cars started to disappear, she says.

“When these two forms of technology were competing, petrol driven and electric cars, electric cars pretty soon became seen as feminine.

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Photo: supplied

“They were marketed to women, particularly in the American market, and there was this assumption that because electric cars were slower, but they were a lot safer, they were a lot more comfortable, they were somehow feminine.”

Electric cars even had luxuries like a roof, she says.

“The ads of the time are amazing, these rich women in their fancy hats getting into these beautiful electric cars.

“They were also a product developed with women in mind, they were the first cars to be made with roofs because a real man doesn't care if he gets wet in the rain, right? But women did.”

But soon this association between femininity and electric cars became a commercial problem because men didn't want them, she says.

“That wasn't the main reason why we ended up building a world for petrol driven car, but it actually did contribute.”

One of the areas Marçal explores in her book is the idea that what women have done in the economy is almost never defined as technology.

“We talk about the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, but we might as well have talked about the Flax Age or the Pottery Age, but pottery or weaving were forms of technology associated with women and therefore we don't see them as technology.”

This is illustrated by the suit Neil Armstrong wore on the Moon which ended up being created by female seamstresses specialised in the production of female underwear, she says.

“It was this company that was specialised in girdle-making and bras that ended up being the only company able to solve this very technical problem - what should a human body wear on the Moon in order to not die?”

Previous prototypes for spacesuits were made in hard materials but they didn't work because they limited movement, she says.

And in the end, reluctantly, they were given the contract and the suits were hand-sewn by female seamstresses with incredible technical skills and knowledge.”

Women are excluded form the economy in other ways, she says.

“What I argue in the book is that gender still really holds innovation back in the world and in our economies. And the most striking example there is something like venture capital.”

Men have a monopoly on this form of funding, she says.

“Many of the business models and big companies that are defining the world economy right now, they have managed to get that big because of venture capital funding.

“So, if this system shuts women out, that means that the future of AI and healthcare and business and all of those most of those innovations that will define our future are now being created by men and that that is a problem because that means that we are not using the full potential of ideas that that we have.”

Glamour labour is a term she has coined for women who are successful in the online economy.

“It's no surprise that women have excelled at this. But what I say as well is that you can't see it as some kind of amazing female empowerment, because Kylie Jenner might be the highest earner on Instagram the platform, but Mark Zuckerberg still owns Instagram.”

Women have a powerful influence on consumer decisions, she says.

“We know women are the world's most powerful consumer, not because women have more money than men, but because the task of shopping for the family or extended family, being good at figuring out what store to go to or what to buy.

“That is an economic role that has actually been encouraged in women and is one of few economic roles that has been. So, it's traditionally a female role in the economy.”

There are deep connections in the economy between women and shopping, she says, and yet that hasn’t translated into female-centred products.

“In spite of women influencing more than 80 percent of all consumer decisions in the global economy still they’re so absent from innovation and product development, and they can't get funding for their businesses.

“It's some kind of weird market failure because obviously if women are these incredibly powerful consumers, it would make sense, wouldn't it, from a market perspective to develop products and design things with women in mind by other women, but those are precisely the types of businesses that can't get funding.”