A recent study co-authored by a University of California, Riverside, business professor challenges a long-held finding in academic literature that the presence of women on company invention teams results in products of lesser value than inventions produced by teams that consist of all men.
By taking a more nuanced approach, Haibo Liu, an assistant professor at the School of Business, found that the presence of women increased the invention value by 6.3% on average when the teams worked on inventions that are more complex, or, more precisely, have higher levels of integrality.
With highly integral products, such as smartphones, each major component, such as the screen, cannot be modified without forcing changes on several other parts of the device, such as the circuit board, battery, and other parts.
Integral inventions differ greatly from modular inventions, devices in which each component can be replaced with little effect on the other components. For example, desktop computers may have modular components like the processor, memory, and storage, which can be easily upgraded or swapped out for more powerful versions.
So, product development teams that work on highly integral inventions must have effective team coordination, Liu said. This includes intimate familiarity with others’ contributions, effective discussion, and a willingness by team members to adjust their contributions accordingly for the product to work.
“While studies have found mixed gender teams tend to negatively impact invention value, especially for patented inventions, our contribution is saying, ‘wait a minute, it’s not the female inventors’ fault,’” Liu said.
“This is more likely to be the result of gender-specific barriers that female inventors face in innovation settings. For example, previous studies have found that female inventors experience more negative outcomes in their work, despite strong evidence that female inventors are no less qualified than their male counterparts.”
“The key point is that it really depends on the task. If the inventions are more integral or less modular, you need more coordination, more communication, and the female inventor is especially valuable in this condition.”
Earlier research cited in the study found that sexism by men on mixed gender teams can compromise the entire team’s work and result in inventions of less value.
“Male inventors tend to disregard the female team members’ input and ideas,” Liu said. “That is one of the reasons why you see an overall negative effect without considering the integrality.”
The analysis by Liu and his colleagues was based on data gleaned from 468,023 patents granted to publicly traded corporations by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between 1983 and 2015. Patent data contains information on the invention team, including the given names of invention team members, which identified teams that included women, allowing for an analysis of the impact of gender.
Liu and his co-authors estimate the value that an invention brings to a company by measuring stock market reaction to its patent being granted. And they infer an invention’s integrality based on the highly structured claims on each patent documentation using text analyses.
“Also important is the group process," Liu said. "Social psychology research has shown that women are less likely than the male inventors to make a hasty decision, or to be dominated by, say, the alpha male in the group. So, when there's a female presence, people tend to be more caring for each other's comments.”
But more integral projects need more robust coordination and thus benefit from women, who, Liu says, “can make a mental shift toward more team-oriented norms and toward a psychologically safer atmosphere.”
Liu’s paper is titled “When do teams generate valuable inventions? The moderating role of invention integrality on the effects of expertise similarity, network cohesion, and gender diversity.” It was published in the journal Production and Operations Management earlier this year. The other authors are Tian Heong Chan of Emory University, and Steffen Keck and Wenjie Tang of the University of Vienna in Austria.
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