By Victoria Metcalf 08/08/2016

The assignment from Te Punaha Matatini – to think about how we might reframe innovation in the New Zealand context and to use the available data from Figure.NZ to do so – has given me pause to consider some often overlooked and what I believe are pivotal components to creating a brighter future – diversity (in this piece, focussing only on gender), leadership & interdisciplinarity.

I have used Figure.NZ data to help shape my thoughts.

I’ve split my original longform post into two parts. This is Part 1.

Navigating the jagged rocks and journeying through the looking glass

A case and a space for gender diversity and connectivity – Reframing innovation in New Zealand.

Disclaimer: Comments, opinions and analysis are my own.

You’re captain on a ship being pursued by a flotilla of pirate ships wanting your goods and probably your ship. You’re seemingly cornered, being forced forwards by the chase around you directly to an intimidating barrier of jagged rocks – from which it seems clear there is no escape. It looks like you, your crew, your goods and your seafaring home are doomed. What do you do?

Alice, in the latest ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ movie, captaining a ship, looks at a seemingly impossible situation. Then in Alice fashion, together with her crew, she achieves the impossible before breakfast.

Nimble with her thoughts and open to opportunities, challenges, and indeed cognisant of the dangers ahead of her, she sees a way through the rocks to freedom and safety and a brighter future. Innovatively, she leads her team, whom she trusts and is reliant upon for the plan to work, to act swiftly together. They push the ship to its limits at full sail, lifting the keel up to allow clearance from the rocks. Then quickly, she cuts the sail, righting the ship at the last moment, allowing it to shoot through a narrow gap.

It’s a big, bold, swiftly enacted, audacious plan and it works. Filled with men cocky with confidence of a catch, the pirate ships get grounded on the rocks, whilst Alice’s ship sails through. Bold leadership and innovation leads to success.

A New Zealand voyage of innovation

Navigating New Zealand nimbly through the coming decades and beyond in amongst a suite of global, incredibly challenging or jagged issues, and doing it in a way that protects and indeed nurtures and enhances our land, assets and people is effectively the same situation as the fictional scenario for Alice above. This requires innovation.

Definition (Merriam-Webster) – a new method, idea, product, the action or process of innovating.

Frequently, our talk of innovation is focussed on the next, new big product and the process of generating such products. If we can only get people to get in the innovation headspace, then innovation will magically appear. Concomitantly, there is often talk of the riches we will reap from such products – the economic prosperity that will encase us.

Whilst these absolutely are aspects and drivers of innovation (both the creation of new products and the process of striving towards those), I prefer a more holistic viewpoint.

It was Sir Paul Callaghan, with Shaun Hendy, who told us to “get off the grass”. I concur that a move away from reliance on primary production is necessary for our forward progress as a nation.

Noting the definition of innovation earlier, I fear we don’t focus enough on a broader approach regarding these new ideas and methods and the processes of creating those. What are we missing in the innovation puzzle? What haven’t we yet recognised enough from a big picture perspective as a critical component to driving positive change? When we think about new ideas and methods are we looking too narrowly from a product generation and a supply chain perspective?

My journey down the rabbit-hole of the data has focussed on two areas – interdisciplinary approaches and gender diversity, especially with respect to science-related fields. I believe these are critical, but frequently overlooked aspects of innovation. I also outline why leadership is a pivotal component of both diversity and interdisciplinarity. In this piece I have focussed on gender in terms of diversity, because this post is sufficiently large just in terms of that facet alone (as is the data in this space), and it may have resulted in an entire book in order to cover all aspects of diversity!

However, I want to make it explicitly clear that ALL aspects of championing diversity and achieving equity are important and I contextualise this in the ‘A case for diversity’ section below. In the remainder of the post, I have constrained my discussion and analyses to gender alone. I have not covered other areas of diversity, which are beyond the scope of the present discussion. Note also that I tend to write using the term gender, rather than sex (biological- female/male). Male/female is however, more commonly used in the data provided. I haven’t inserted all graphs from Figure.NZ that I reference as there are many, but I have provided links to all those not graphically shown.

What strengths might we be yet to harness on our voyage?

I believe in New Zealand we’re missing out on greater forward progress, and indeed, somewhat missing one viewpoint of innovation, by sometimes not considering that new methods and new ideas might not simply be product-focused. Rather, if we focus instead on people and how they work together, instead of on the yet-to-be-developed end product, this might well give us the advantage we’re looking for. Indeed, new methods and ideas might pertain to how we work together, who we work with, and how we consider what innovation is.
Reframing Innovation and my invitation from Te Punaha Matatini and Figure.NZ to do so, provides an ideal opportunity to re-examine where we are at and for me to put the lens on (gender) diversity and interdisciplinarity, alongside leadership.

In a simple equation, if we’re not utilising the strengths of all of our citizens we are missing out on opportunities to be innovative.

Why are gender equity, strong leadership and fostering of interdisciplinarity important components of innovation?

New Zealand prides itself as being the first country to give women the vote. That Bloody Woman, an incredibly powerful and emotional musical about the human force behind this eventual government decision, may still hit some raw spots for audiences today, as it did for me. This was in terms of being placed back in the moment of what the suffragettes fought so hard for and in some ways the realisation of how much work is still to be done more than 120 years later. The musical provides greater insight into the life of Kate Sheppard, who may have achieved the impossible, not before breakfast, but after many sustained years of being ‘that bloody woman’. It’s a useful benchmark for where New Zealand is at now.

The raw spot is that our journey to equity – like that of many other countries globally –  is far from over. That means we are not achieving what we could as a nation.

What Would Kate Do, we ask? She’d ask New Zealanders today, I think, to embrace the strengths of all of us, regardless of gender, or ethnicity, or any other aspect of diversity.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change – Brene Brown

Kate also knew, as did Alice, that she couldn’t achieve her fight on her own. Kate was one of a team of people with a range of skillsets. After many failures and knockbacks, and continued reconfiguration of the team, their shared vision and common sense of purpose drove success. Today, as for Kate and for Alice, our diversity (focussing within this piece on gender, whilst recognising that ethnicity and other diversity aspects are equally important) and our ability to collaborate, via strong leadership and interdisciplinarity, are the keys to our innovation voyage.

Image Source: Flickr Commons by AJ Cann innovation
Image Source: Flickr Commons by AJ Cann

The case for diversity

This section looks at diversity broadly as a whole. My subsequent analyses of the Figure.NZ data zooms in to just looking at how we are doing with respect to gender diversity.

A significant body of research shows that more diverse teams are more innovative than homogeneous groups. This is true of both social diversity as well as intellectual diversity – the latter being a group of people with diverse individual expertise. Reflecting on Brene Brown’s quote above, diversity enhances creativity.

Why? The answer is partly because of the collective intelligence, or CI, that a group of people with different backgrounds brings. Each group member brings different information, opinions and perspectives. It goes further than that though:

Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

Diversity hence, works through the encouragement of both hard work and creativity. And this is even before any interaction between group members takes place. Anticipation is thus, an important component of the diversity equation.

The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain. In just the same way, we need diversity—in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.

Establishing a diverse team leads to positive outcomes on the bottom line for companies and appears to lead to higher-quality scientific research.

The case for interdisciplinary approaches

Diversity in this sense also encompasses the idea of interdisciplinary (or trans- or multi-disciplinary) approaches and the benefits that they can bring to innovation. Indeed, the wicked or jagged global problems facing us need more than one type of knowledge to solve them. Thus, interdisciplinary innovation is essential to our present and future growth.

This is as a result of the positive impact that arises from working across social boundaries by which we structure knowledge. This concept goes well beyond simply the academic setting of working across recognised research disciplines – e.g. the arts and sciences and business studies, or even the industry-research nexus. Rather, it is also inclusive of government departments, internal functions within a company, working across employment sectors and the nexus or boundary points between all of these domains.

Working in such a way is not without significant challenges because of the very nature of working across knowledge boundaries and bringing together entities which hold differing intrinsic values and therefore motivations. Conventional modes of working within sectors such as science have a long way to go, not just in New Zealand, but globally.

The case for effective leadership

It is impossible to look at innovation, to address and indeed embrace diversity and also foster interdisciplinary approaches, without also considering the pivotal role of leadership.

The idea of what constitutes effective leadership is shifting. Again, returning to Brene Brown’s quote about vulnerability, new models of effective leadership are not based on autocracy, where the leader is positioned as the expert and the holder of power. Instead, they incorporate understanding of collective intelligence and a shift of knowledge and power from an individual to a collective, or team.

Why does such a shift matter? Some research indicates a direct link between leadership style and the wellbeing of employees. Positive-based styles of leadership, including those based on the PERMA formula for wellbeing (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments), provide space and opportunity to better utilise the strengths and diversity within a team, which in turn drives innovation.

Such a leadership approach can at first seem like it involves a sense of loss of control for the leader, but in allowing this vulnerability and also having a firm foundation of empathy, all members of the team can thrive. Leadership thus, according to Daft and Pirola-Merlo (2009) is both art and science.

Positive leadership is based on collaboration and teamwork, a climate of trust, relationship building underpinned by empathy, a sense of common purpose, recognition of contributions, and development of community and support.

Women are viewed as potentially more effective leaders overall than men, which provides a strong argument for embracing diversity within leadership positions. In fact at every level, in a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman involving surveys of more than 7000 leaders:

more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows

Zenger and Folkman also analysed the 16 recognised leadership competencies in this same study and found how effective women are perceived as scores higher than men for 12 of these traits. Interestingly, although a common assumption is that women are more effective at the nurturing competencies such as developing others, inspiring others, relationship building etc, the competencies where women are perceived to be more effective from these 360 evaluations also include non-nurturing traits – taking initiative (the highest scoring difference), displaying integrity and honesty and driving for results.

Diverse teams do better. Women make more effective leaders. Interdisciplinarity leads to innovation. What do we know about how New Zealand is actually doing and where we could build to our advantage?

Delving into gender diversity data


According to Figure.NZ analysis of these data, girls are staying at school for longer and achieving higher standard levels than boys. The number of school leavers who have attained NCEA level 3 (i.e. university entrance standard) are skewed towards females across all socio-economic levels (2013).

Source: FigureNZ

There is a slight skew towards girls in school leavers who have attained NCEA level 1 literacy and numeracy.

The available data for tertiary enrolments across OECD countries indicates a dominance of females in New Zealand in tertiary enrolment with nearly 1.5 females per 1 male. This is one of the highest rates in the OECD and reflects the school leaver data.

I looked at specific science and technology related subject enrolments in the Figure.NZ data, as these are areas most typically associated with R&D and innovation at university. Across all tertiary levels, as might be expected, there are gender ratio differences across subjects. These trends tend to hold true irrespective of age bracket. Subjects that have a higher ratio of females to males include: behavioural sciences (particularly striking difference), biological sciences, chemical sciences, and graphic and design studies. Subjects that have a higher ratio of males to females include: aerospace engineering, mathematical sciences, earth sciences, physics and astronomy, and computer science (particularly striking difference). There are a multitude of reasons why this might be –  the Science Grrl STEM report (STEM being science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is particularly recommended reading in that regard, or my own posts (e.g. here, here and here).

STEM-related occupations

Out in the workforce there are also skews in gender representation in various industry sectors. Areas where there are particularly low numbers of women include: forestry and mining; electricity, gas, water and waste services; transport, postal and housing; construction, and manufacturing. Education and training and health care and social assistance appear to be in contrast, female-dominated.

I next focussed on science and technology related sector occupations within and categorised these by the ratios of males and females. I also classified these occupations by an approximation of the type of position (administrators through to management).

Science and technology related sector occupations:


Areas skewed towards a higher proportion of female employees

Areas skewed towards a higher proportion of male employees

Relatively balanced areas with respect to sex

database administrators
systems administrators; web administrators;
sterilisation technicians
surveying and spatial science technicians; earth science technicians; telecommunications technicians
agricultural technicianssoftware testers; life science technicians; ICT support engineers;
Developers/ designers/ programmers
developer programmers; analyst programmers; web designers; ICT quality assurance engineers; web developers
multimedia designers
food technologists (marginally)
anatomists or physiologists
systems analysts; network analysts; software engineers; computer network and systems engineers; ICT systems test engineers; physicists; geologists; biotechnologists; geophysicists; chemists; ICT security specialists; environmental research scientists; chemical engineers; environmental consultants; agricultural consultantspathologists (marginally); winemakerseconomists; forest scientists; agricultural scientists; botanists; park rangers
marine biologists; biochemists; life scientists; zoologists; statisticians
chief information officers; ICT project managers; research & development managers;

Note: I worked with available data within Figure.NZ. These data are derived from the 2013 census. The data have weaknesses- a non-response rate of 2.8% and coding issues due to this being a write-in response. For example, I recall writing a lecturer as my occupation and I may not have specified what area: hence, I may not have been coded as a scientist.

The data show a striking pattern of lower representation of females, with the majority of occupations being male-dominated. A lower number of occupations had balanced male:female ratios. Very few science and technology sectors appear to be female dominated. All management level occupations I looked at appear to be male dominated. I noted in a number of cases some regional differences in gender representation, which it would be interesting to further dissect using the raw data.

Specific striking examples are shown below, with the Chief Information Officer data particularly unbalanced with respect to gender:



Source: Figure.NZ


Source: FigureNZ
Source: Figure.NZ

The average hourly earnings for workers in the professional, scientific, technical and administrative industries in New Zealand similarly shows a marked gender gap – females earn significantly less per hour (2006-2015 data).

Source: Figure.NZ

This is also supported by a marked gender gap in weekly earnings and in median earnings and in average earnings (excl. computer systems) (data not shown for the two latter examples):

Source: Figure.NZ

Females tend to have a higher worker turnover rate:

Source: Figure.NZ

This trend of a higher turnover rate for females is also true when just looking at the professional, scientific and technical services industry:

Source: Figure.NZ

This gap is of concern given that there has been a significant increase in recent years in people employed in the professional, scientific, technical and administrative industries in New Zealand, and a global trend toward STEM-related jobs and a knowledge-based economy more generally. By contrast, the numbers for employers and self-employed workers appear relatively static.

Since 2002, in line with the turnover data, more females than males tend to be unemployed (all sectors) and this is true across all ages but the over 50’s. The filled jobs data in the professional, scientific and technical services industry also shows this gender gap.

The critical role of business in innovation- examining business size, earnings and gender

Please note these data below are all for general business- I didn’t find STEM-related business data as a subcategory.

Looking at business size and change over time also offers interesting insights. In small businesses of 1-5 employees the 1999-2014 filled jobs data appears to show a widening gender gap.

Source: Figure.NZ

The trend of a (typically widening) gender gap in filled jobs holds true across businesses of less than 49 employees (e.g. here, here and here), whereas there are more female than male employees in businesses over 100 employees in size.

A widening gender gap is also present in the median earnings for employees in small businesses, as demonstrated by the following graph of businesses with 1-5 employees, but also here and here. We need more information to better understand the business situation here, especially any gender-related aspects within STEM-associated businesses and the role that this plays with respect to innovation.

Source: Figure.NZ


Some of the data, due to origins from census data may not paint fully representative pictures of STEM or research-related fields. In addition, some of the data arises from Statistics New Zealand or there are other data where the categorisation is professional, scientific, technical (and administrative (the latter is also included for some data sets)). This category potentially includes many other workers in fields that are neither STEM nor R&D related (e.g. accountancy, legal etc). Also, other categories (e.g. mining; electricity, gas, water and waste services; information media and telecommunications; agriculture, forestry and fishing; construction; health care) may include many STEM-related occupations not grouped within data I looked at, meaning we may not get an accurate picture of the total STEM field within the data presented here.

The business data above are not pertaining to STEM-related businesses only, so these have limitations. However, I think it’s important to note that in my holistic consideration of innovation there appear to be gender differences in data pertaining to the business sector.

The OECD iLibrary has a table on women researchers as a percentage of total researchers (2000-2014). Unfortunately however, the New Zealand data is absent from the table, as is the data from countries we might expect to have similar statistics too (Australia, UK, USA), which means a useful comparison is missing.

Summary of gender data

  • Girls are more likely to attain higher school standards (NCEA) when they leave school.
  • There is a dominance of women versus men at university across all levels.
  • Yet, we start to see gender differences in tertiary subject enrolments in certain STEM subjects.
  • Such gender differences track through to employed positions with most STEM-related occupations having a higher proportion of and number of males over females.
  • Management positions are dominated by males.
  • There is a marked gender gap in hourly, weekly and average and median earnings within this industry.
  • Females in the S&T sector tend to have a higher worker turnover rate.
  • Small business data indicate gender gaps but these data were not STEM-specific. We need to better understand the role of business and gender differences (including filled jobs and earnings), especially in small business and particularly those more closely linked to innovation (e.g. STEM-related businesses).

Take a breather and then come back for Part 2 where I look at interdisciplinarity and summarise my thoughts on innovation.

The entire original post (Parts 1 and 2) is found on the Te Punaha Matatini website here.