Why Gender Equality Is a Sustainable Approach to Innovation

03/06/2015 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Every level of society is an incubator of innovation within which everyone can contribute. Therefore it should go without saying that gender equality promotes innovation, but how does this work in practice? Let's cast our eyes northwards towards the countries labelled "the world's most gender equal" - The Nordics.

Innovative socio-political solutions that promote gender equality have underpinned the Nordic welfare model for the last four decades. Over the years it has become easier for women and later men to combine family and work life, a phenomenon that has in turn come to characterise the business culture of the Nordic Region. In their current co-operation programme the Nordic Ministers for Gender Equality continue to assert that gender equality is one of the foundations for both innovation and welfare.

This perspective has contributed to a new business mindset: Social responsibility and sustainability not only have to be addressed in companies' innovation policies, but they also have to be at the heart of industrial and commercial activities. Transparency and ethical business are often cited as key prerequisites for sustainable innovation. Gender equality is just as important.

Nevertheless, a report by Nordic Innovation in 2014 identifying how the Nordic region's 500 biggest firms applied strategies that link social responsibility with innovation shows that it is still not particularly common practice for these businesses to integrate social responsibility and sustainability throughout the value chain.

Innovation is generated by highlighting and encouraging different perspectives, while a diverse range of perspectives in turn makes it easier to meet the preferences of different target groups, for instance. This diversity is, unfortunately, not forthcoming; the Nordic countries still exhibit skewed gender representation on boards and in senior management positions. Although equal gender representation is no guarantee of innovation, generally speaking companies with more equal representation on their boards perform better. It should go without saying that as women's educational attainment and experience increases the change should be reflected in recruitment to the highest positions.

Political measures of recent decades to include women in higher education and to encourage them to participate in working life and aspire to highly skilled jobs and roles on boards of directors is slowly making an impression in the business world. Most of the top 500 Nordic companies now have at least one woman on the board. Iceland and Norway lead the way when it comes to female representation on the boards of the top 500 listed companies, achieving 46% and 40% respectively. Both countries have also enacted legislation regarding gender equality in boards. The Nordic average for these companies is three women out of ten on boards. (Nordic Gender Equality in Figures 2015).

Slow progress can be seen also in senior management - 75% of the Nordic 500 located in Finland, Norway and Sweden have at least one woman in their executive management team. The average for women managers in listed companies remains below 40% throughout the Region, with Iceland coming in top at 37% and Denmark in the other end at 29%.

Innovation requires a long-term focus on gender equality. This year, the Nordic Ministers for Equality are concentrating on engaging girls in STEM subjects - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. Conversely, in the context of equality the Nordic Council of Ministers has previously addressed increasing the proportion of men working in the care sector. An ageing Nordic population combined with restraints on public spending will make the care sector a particularly innovation-hungry one over the next 15 years.

Gender equality from cradle to grave, then? Yes, because as the Nordic Ministers for Equality highlighted at the UN's Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week, equality benefits men as well as women. And what's more, the national economy benefits too.

Follow the activities of the Nordic Ministers for Equality at the UN's Commission on the Status of Women at