Engineering Innovation Processes

This method provides a framework for incorporating knowledge about sex and gender into engineering innovation processes. Engineering innovation here refers to any product, process, service, or infrastructure in the public or private sector.

This method assumes a basic understanding of other methods in this project: Analyzing Sex, Analyzing Gender, and Analyzing Factors Intersecting with Sex and Gender, and of the distinct meanings of sex and gender (see also Engineering Checklist).

Integrating sex and gender into engineering innovation may:

  • Lead to new products, processes, infrastructure, or services.
  • Lead to design that promotes human well-being, including gender equality.
  • Identify new markets and business opportunities.
  • Develop technologies that meet the needs of a complex and diverse user group.
  • Enhance global competitiveness and sustainability.

Each engineering organization has its own systems and processes for planning and managing innovation. This method offers elements that can be modified for the needs of specific systems.

Problems to Avoid when Analyzing Sex and Gender

  • Being blind to potential differences of sex and gender may result in missed business opportunities, with certain groups of people being left out, poorly accommodated, etc.
  • Treating "women" and "men" as homogenous groups ignores differences among women and among men.
  • Over-emphasizing differences between women and men can cause engineers to overlook significant commonalities between women and men.
  • Designing to stereotypes may result in unpopular products.
  1. Evaluating Past Innovation Practices

    One route to developing Gendered Innovations is to recognize how choices made in the development of past innovations and technologies may have served certain groups of women or men more than others.

    • Where have previous engineering innovation processes been blind or biased with respect to sex and gender?
      1. I-Methodology—whereby designers create products for users whose interests, abilities, and needs resemble their own—may result in a “male default” because men tend to be the majority of engineers in many economic sectors, such as automotive design and IT. (see Case Study: Machine Translation).
      2. Designing for “everybody” may also result in an unconscious “male default” (Oudshoorn et al., 2004). Although not labeled as such, the majority of video games, for example, are designed for boys and men (see Case Study: Video Games). Early speech synthesis by default produced men’s voices which limited its usefulness as an assistive technology (see Case Study: Making Machines Talk).
    • When differences between women and men were considered, are they based on stereotypes? Stereotyping fails to capture actual people’s attitudes and behaviors. Products or systems based on stereotypes may press people to conform to limiting or unequal roles. Potential customers and users may resent being constrained in this way and look elsewhere or modify products in an unauthorized manner. Products or systems based on stereotypes may reinforce or contribute to gender and other inequalities and not contribute to enhancing social justice or corporate social responsibility (Rommes, 2006).
    • When products or systems are designed specifically for girls or women, are they built on stereotypes? Simply “pinking” plays to stereotypes and may miss important aspects of diversity in women’s markets. For example, when Philips designers asked young girls what they thought about a toy called Kidcom that they were developing, the children rejected the round shapes and pink coloring that the designers had stereotypically chosen (Sørensen et al., 2011).
    • What public works or business opportunities have been missed as a result of failing to understand sex or gender factors influencing a project? (See Case Study: Public Transportation.)
  2. Building the Design Team

    • Including women —their experiences, knowledge, and networks—on the design team can broaden perspectives (Danilda et al., 2011). Including women along with other populations is important for reasons of social justice, but does not ensure gendered innovation (Faulkner et al., 2007). One woman on a team, for example, does not represent all women.
    • Including gender expertise can maximize innovation. Gender expertise can be recruited and developed in-house or from outside the project. Eventually, everyone on the team—women and men—will want to learn methods of sex and gender analysis relevant to their area. This is the most efficient way to rethink research priorities and to formulate research questions that lead to innovation (see Rethinking Research Priorities and Outcomes and Formulating Research Questions).
  3. Analyzing Users and Markets

    • In making choices about projects, engineers will analyze who does and who does not benefit from a particular project. It is important to analyze the differential effects of a system or product on women and men of different social, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds (Schraudner, 2010; Schöder, 2012; see Rethinking Research Priorities and Outcomes and Case Study: HIV Microbicides).
    • Relevant sex variables are biophysical (see Term: Sex; Methods: Analyzing Sex and Rethinking Standards and Reference Models; and Case Study: Pregnant Crash Test Dummies).
    • Relevant gender variables are cultural, and they are related to specific gender norms, gender relations, and gender identities (see Term: Gender; Method: Analyzing Gender). Gendered behaviors in potential applications may shape patterns of use or access, etc. When considering gender, engineers should ground gender analysis in empirical evidence about actual people and actual practices, wishes, needs, and so on. Basing design on gender stereotypes may lead to unsuccessful products or systems.
    • It is important to analyze differences between men and women, but one should also recognize and understand similarities (see Case Study: De-Gendering the Knee).
    • It is important to analyze sex and gender, but it is also necessary to examine other factors intersecting with sex and gender. These factors or variables can be biological, socio-cultural, or psychological (see: Analyzing Factors Intersecting with Sex and Gender). Factors include age, reproductive status, educational level, socioeconomic background, and sexual orientation.
  4. Obtaining User Input

    Users and customers are a potential source of sex and gender intelligence for design and development. There are many ways to tap into users’ potential gender knowledge.

    • Participatory research typically seeks to balance interests, benefits, and responsibilities between users and design or engineering teams (see Participatory Research and Design). Participatory research is a way to access users’ tacit knowledge—knowledge that may divide along gendered lines because of gender relations (see Case Study: Water Infrastructure).
    • Surveys, interviews, or focus groups. These techniques must be used with care. Users may report behaving in gender-acceptable ways even if their actual behaviors differ; reliance on inaccurate self-reports can lead to unpopular products.
    • Objective measures. To be reliable, measurements should not be based on self-reports. For example, on average, computer game players (women and men alike) underreport their gaming hours. Research that records actual player time renders more objective assessments of play (Williams, 2009).
  5. Evaluation and Planning

    Good practice requires an analysis of outcomes (see Analyzing Research Priorities and Outcomes). Organizations will want to:

    • Consider both benefits and problems of the current product, process, service, or infrastructure. What successes can be built upon and what difficulties overcome?
    • Consider how to develop gender expertise further. How can what was learned be further used across an organization and its innovation partners? What additional gender expertise is needed for future projects?

Related Case Studies

De-Gendering the Knee
Exploring Markets for Assistive Technology for the Elderly
HIV Microbicides
Machine Translation
Making Machines Talk
Pregnant Crash Test Dummies
Public Transportation
Video Games
Water Infrastructure

Works Cited

  • Danilda, I., & Thorslund, J. (Eds.). (2011). Innovation & Gender. Stockholm: VINNOVA Information.
  • Faulkner, W., & Lie, M. (2007). Gender in the Information Society: Strategies of Inclusion. Gender, Technology, and Development, 11 (2), 157-177.
  • Oudshoorn, N., Rommes, E., & Stienstra, M. (2004). Configuring the User as Everybody: Gender and Design Cultures in Information and Communication Technologies. Science, Technology and Human Values, 29 (1), 30-63.
  • Sørensen, K., Rommes, E., & Faulkner, W. (Eds.) (2011). Technologies of Inclusion: Gender in the Information Society. Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press.
  • Schraudner, M. (2010). Fraunhofer’s DiscoverGender Research Findings. In Spritzley, A.,Ohlausen, P., Sprath, D., (Eds.), The Innovation Potential of Diversity: Practical Examples for the Innovation Management, pp. 169–185. Berlin: Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung.
  • Schröder, K. (2012). Female Interaction Strategy. Aarhus: Design People.
  • Williams, D.; Consalvo, M.; Caplan, S.; Yee, N. (2009). Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers. Journal of Communication, 59, 700-725.