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Slut Innovations

The Slut Walk events in Finland last weekend reminded me of an innovation seminar I attended last February.

One of the studies presented in the seminar was on household innovation in consumer products (Von Hippel & al. Comparing Business and Household Sector Innovation in Consumer Products: Findings from a Representative Study in the UK). In the study the researchers had interviewed a representative sample of over one thousand people in the UK aged 18 and over.

Their study suggested that a typical consumer innovator was a technically educated male. In other words, non-technically educated women were less probable to innovate. The feminist in me raised an eyebrow!

The researchers themselves showed some reserve in making the point that women are less innovative, but on the other hand, they did not want to undermine their study by questioning its results. Neverthless, they had no explanation why their study indicated that when it comes to consumer innovation, bet your money on the men.

Well, I have an explanation: the world of technology research, development, design, engineering, and innovation has been for ages a man’s world. The language, concepts, and examples we use to think and talk about innovation come from a world where men are a clear majority. It is not surprising that women, when asked, do not find themselves innovating as often as men do.

Women are, of course, very innovative but seldom call their creativity in relation to consumer products as “innovation”. I bet there are, for example, mothers of small children who are very innovative in running their daily chores with the help of consumer products. For example, making a nappy out of a used t-shirt in 5 minutes or building an edible catapult based on an image in a children's book (see below). If a researcher was to ask these creative women “did you innovate today?” these mothers would probably not see their clever ideas as “consumer innovations”.

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What about the Slut Walks? Where is the connection?

A very visual characteristic of the Slut Walks is that many women dress up as “sluts” to demonstrate their right to wear what they want. Check the latest news about the events and you can not miss images of women dressed provocatively.

The provocative dresses have a point to make and they are making it in the language of men: visual language in the images and in actual
language in the written slogans. The word "slut" itself is a man's word chosen purposefully. Due to the specific visual and actual wording, the Slut Walks have gathered lots of attention globally.

So the Slut Walks and the way in how they use male language reminded me of the world of technology innovation and how its language is the language of men.

If our Finnish "Innovation Society" wants to harness consumer creativity we can not limit our perspective to the world of men. And because “innovation talk” is very male-oriented there is a risk of excluding lots of creative activity that does not fit the traditional labels of “technology” and “innovation”. We run the risk of overlooking everyday creativity from a fresh angle – a rich source of innovation we should not leave unused (see, e.g., the famous Niksi-Pirkka that clearly has a less manly angle to its innovativeness).

The Slut Walks have drawn attention to the fact that we live in a men's world. Let this also be a reminder that when it comes to policies and initiatives to harness innovation, we live in the same male dominated world.

P.S. For those interested in women and technical progress in history I recommend one of my favourite books: Ruth Schwarz Cowan, "More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave". Also, thanks to Vilma Lehtinen for commenting on the draft of this post :)