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An Economy Built for Men
How sexism is holding up innovation
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“Sexism has created an economy that makes it very hard to address the real problems that we now face. Our limiting ideas about men and women are holding us back.” - Katrine Marçal
In her brilliant newsletter “Wealth of Women” as well as in her book “Mother of Invention”, Katrine Marçal enlights us (or especially men like myself) about the sexism in our minds and cultures. A bias and discrimination that is not only preventing us from addressing the real problems we are currently facing but is also sustaining a male-dominated world.
Katrine highlights some interesting examples that showcase how our sexist and male-dominated worldview has and is still holding up meaningful innovation. Let’s explore two of them:
The Electric Car
When cars emerged as a new mode of transport and became increasingly popular, people and car manufacturers had two options: petrol or electric. The first one was quite dirty, loud, and unreliable but could travel further. The second one, on the contrary, was clean and simple to use, but had a low range due to limited battery technology, and needed to be recharged every 60km.
The electric car was seen as being “feminine”, simply because it was slower, cleaner, had a lower radius, needed less maintenance, and was generally less dangerous. The “real man” would of course drive a smokey and noisy car - a muscle car that drives fast and far. Virginia Schaff who explored the sentiment of men towards the electric car in the early 1920s demonstrates these views in her article “Femininity and the Electric Car”:
“C. H. Claudy, an early and staunch advocate of electric vehicles (he would later become the automotive columnist for the Woman’s Home Companion), had written in 1907 that the electric car “now does more work, in certain lines, than horses ever did.” Claudy claimed the electric would be a boon to all women, asking whether there had “ever been an invention of more solid comfort to the feminine half of humanity than the electric carriage?” He observed that the woman who drove an electric “finds it very convenient to call up the garage, have her runabout sent around instantly and not have to wait for a complicated hitching or a currying and combing of horses.
[…] Although Claudy staunchly supported women’s driving, he was slow to recommend gasoline cars for women. Describing the electric as “the car which has a circumscribed radius,” he joined the ranks of those who envisioned the electric in terms of woman’s special, yet limited, sphere.”
This ultimately branded the electric car as feminine and therefore made it second best, holding back research, development and innovation. Men held the purchasing power, meaning that demand for electric cars quickly dried up, electric technology stalled, and for over a century the world focused on petrol-driven cars and combustion engines.
It gets even more absurd though. Because even for petrol-driven cars, electric starters and roofs were considered “feminine” (or “unmanly”). The assumption (discrimination) was that only women would need these type of safety measures.
And here comes our Alfred Sloan back into this newsletter. That’s right, Alfred who we met already in issue 1 and issue 3, also had his fingers in this stuff. In his book about his years as long-time president, chairman and CEO of General Motors, he wrote:
“For some reason or other, it took us a long time to realize that the way to keep dry in a motorcar was to keep the weather out of the car”.
Going back to the electric car. If you look back just a few years ago (the 2000s and early 2010s) the same sexist craziness happened of course by the big car manufacturers (who slept on investing into electric mobility) as well as many politicians, when electric cars were (again) developed on a larger scale. Until Elon Musk made electric cars “manly”…
The Suitcase With Wheels
The picture below is one of the first pictures that come up when I google “suitcase”. But suitcases didn’t always have wheels. No, wheeled suitcases were actually only invented in 1972. Yep, that’s right, roughly 5,000 years after the invention of the wheel and only one year after NASA put people on the surface of the moon, did we come up with the idea of putting wheels on heavy suitcases… 😅
Reviewing and referencing Katrine Marçal’s book, Sarah Ditum writes:
“Even the arrival of mass tourism couldn’t convince the market that the wheeled suitcase was a good idea.
It was just too girlie. Real men carried their cases, and their wives’ cases as well, and because there was no reason for a woman to be travelling by herself, there was no demand for wheels.”
Even Bernard Sadow, the official inventor of the wheelie suitcase, said that a “macho feeling” prevented him from selling his suitcases to department stores.
Katrine Marçal writes:
“Two assumptions about gender were at work here. The first was that no man would ever roll a suitcase because it was simply “unmanly” to do so. The second was about the mobility of women. There was nothing preventing a woman from rolling a suitcase – she had no masculinity to prove. But women didn’t travel alone, the industry assumed. If a woman traveled, she would travel with a man who would then carry her bag for her.”
Sexism ≠ Innovation, Today
If you think that things are better today then you have much to learn….
With regards to sustainability, for example, Katrine points out that:
“Assumptions about masculinity play a similar role today in relation to innovation around sustainability. For example, we often think that consumption of meat and preferences for large cars – instead of travel by public transport – are essential features of masculinity.”
As it turns out, gender bias, patriarchy and sexism are still preventing us from developing novel, game-changing ideas and from focusing on the real problems.
“We have a financial system that has poured resources into businesses promising to “disrupt”, “crush” and ”dominate”. […] Where were the innovations promising to “repair”, “tend” and “co-operate”?”
That’s it for this week!