Daring to be Different: Affirmative Action through Innovation

Posted March 16, 2021

Women’s equal participation in all aspects of life, including innovation, matters to us at UNDP Turkey Accelerator Lab. Perhaps because we are an all-female team, we did not hesitate for a second before organising a women-only innovation challenge to tackle urban issues with which we have kept ourselves busy for the last 5 months. 

I sat on the idea for a while before sharing it with my colleagues, perhaps because I was trying to resist doing what everyone else was doing – I thought we had enough number of innovation challenges and launching another would not achieve much and could potentially be a poor use of resources.

Then I looked around and searched hard to find a truly inclusive social innovation challenge; to my great disappointment, there was none. Everything looked pretty much the same and certainly not inclusive to the extent that I would call satisfactory. For instance, most of them are framed in such a way that, by design, they attract entrepreneurs (rather than the larger pool of problem solvers from all walks of life) who are mostly male.

Moreover, most of these initiatives are, in fact, efforts to find all-singing, all-dancing ‘high-tech’ solutions. Just look at the number of hackathons that have been organised in the last few years alone; notwithstanding their good intentions, I am yet to see even a handful of genuinely effective and sustainable solutions to development challenges that come out of these time-bound events.

The most pressing societal challenges require systemic solutions that involve various key actors, not some fancy tech promising to change the world. Instead of fixing problems as technophiles would claim, technology can create other problems in the process; there are plenty of examples[1] out there that support my healthy level of scepticism. As development practitioners, we must resist the temptation to look for silver bullets in tech because there are none; the space in which we work is much more complex than that. It is terribly naïve to think tech alone can save us all. I wish it was that simple…

Going back to the issue of gender gap in innovation, I find this to be a much bigger problem than the growing bias towards high-tech solutions or heroic(!) entrepreneurs. We already know that women’s participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is less than men’s in most countries which is not a trivial matter; it affects how societies are structured and run. There are also fewer start-ups led by women. Though not a perfect proxy for innovation, we also know that fewer women use the IP (Intellectual Property) system than men[2]. According to research conducted in the UK, only 13% of global patents are filed by women[3].

All of these indicate large cracks in ‘the system’ imposed by perennial regimes that have trapped women in roles well below their capabilities and deliberately excluded them from intellectual circles, reserved for men, where progressive ideas were developed and discussed. 

We should all be asking ourselves, why are most scientists and inventors in history male? Not because they were more intelligent, but because they were given every opportunity to participate in and excel at subjects that were available only to them. The system was broken then, it still is in many parts of the world though not as blindingly obvious. It looks subtle, largely accepted by society so left pretty much unchallenged. It is not acceptable that children grow up thinking that engineers, scientists, and inventors are male because that is what they learn at school. 

It is not just history either; today most societies have heavy biases against women participating in public life as doctors, scientists, and politicians. As international civil servants, it is our professional and moral duty to address the gender gap in innovation just like in other areas such as education, health, and employment. Spaces in which the future of development are shaped need women more than ever, so we must make them accessible.

When there is so much evidence supporting the issues mentioned above, it would simply be wrong to not do something about it. There I found my calling… We needed an innovation challenge, a call to action, for women innovators to create solutions that would dare to shake things up and confront existing norms that stand in the way of true progress. 

The very same norms that have held them back will continue to hold others back if they are not tackled now; because norms, by definition, are very difficult to change or take too long. Look how long it took for violence against women and girls (VAWG) to be recognised as a crime[4].

There are many occasions one can justify affirmative action to undo the wrongs of the past, yet it is incredibly rare to see a good example especially in the area of gender equity[5].

What I hope will leave a good and replicable legacy behind is our recent Social Innovation Challenge, launched in December 2020 in partnership with various ecosystem actors, inviting all women innovators to create solutions to urban challenges that can be scaled up/out/deep[6]. Solutions that have the potential to transform systems, or at least some sub-systems, towards achieving what we call sustainable development. The initiative is also an example of gender-responsive programming in which specific needs of women and girls are catered for. 

By launching an innovation challenge that is open to women innovators, we have created enabling conditions for their solutions to flourish; we have also by default created an environment conducive to finding solutions to issues faced mostly by women and girls. The latter is not just a nice-to-have byproduct, it is vital for the reasons stated above; after all, women’s issues are not going to be fixed by men, they will be fixed by women.

In the coming weeks and months, I will be sharing some insights in a series of blogs on various aspects of the programme: its design, the sort of solutions we have crowdsourced, what makes the winning ideas special, and how they will integrate into our portfolio of solutions.

I hope these will spark new conversations and perhaps inspire others to act on issues that have been long neglected or even forgotten. Innovation requires many things but first and foremost it calls for courage, courage to do the right thing…

Gokce Tuna is the Head of Exploration at UNDP Turkey Accelerator Lab who is also a proud feminist. You can follow her on Twitter.

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/06/30/tech-causes-more-problems-than-it-solves/

[2] https://www.wipo.int/ip-outreach/en/ipday/2018/innovation_creativity_gender_gap.html

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/gender-profiles-in-worldwide-patenting-an-analysis-of-female-inventorship-2019-edition

[4] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/507845/Shifting-Social-Norms-tackle-Violence-against-Women-Girls3.pdf

[5] There are many initiatives where women are beneficiaries, but that is not necessarily affirmative action towards gender equity. Affirmative action prioritizes disadvantaged groups in certain areas, it is an intentional move to create fair conditions. To illustrate with an example, there is a big difference between providing women with leadership training and reserving at least 50% of leadership positions for women through quotas. In the former, there is no guarantee that women will be in leadership positions whereas in the latter this is guaranteed.

[6] See our innovation scaling strategy, available at: https://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/content/acceleratorlabs/en/home/library/AccLabSCALE.html