Innovation / Research / women

Innovations by Women : Why are They so Obscure

In my recent book on Grassroots Innovations ( 2016, I describe this dilemma and I quote:

“The role of women in grassroots innovations has thus remained rather obscure. The number of innovations by women has also been rather small in the Honey Bee database compared to their real-life societal contributions. There could be many reasons including lack of women volunteers and fieldworkers. But still, no reason can justify this inadequacy. Yet, the number of girl students who have got awards is significantly higher than the number of women recognized by the network so far. In the IGNITE competition, children in and out of school can participate by contributing their ideas. The NIF screens these and awards the selected ones. Among these awardees, far more girls get recognition for their innovative ideas than has been possible among the adults. There could be many reasons for this anomaly. Till school level, a girl child coming to school does not face much problem in at least using her imagination. Once the family and social responsibilities burden the women, their ability to assert their creativity gets compromised. It is not that they don’t have ideas any more, but there are not enough avenues for them to share their ideas. It is worthwhile to recall the contribution made by Autumn Stanley,8 who had spent thirteen years in reviewing 200 years history of the US Patent Office to find out the share of women inventors. Stanley, in her much neglected masterpiece, Mothers and Daughters of Invention, lamented at the share of women patent-holders in the US, which was less than 1 per cent during 1809–1985 in the USA. She shows instead how many times men were given credit for the inventions actually developed by their wives. This number has increased to about 4–8 per cent in recent times (by different estimates). Her main contention is that women actively invent. There is no question of that, but they are not recognized as inventors. Stanley’s work is an extraordinary study of women’s creativity and inventiveness. And yet, despite the fact that the author spent thirteen years to write this book, and provided unassailable evidence of how women have invented new technologies during the last 200 years in the USA, the work has remained obscure. Grace Hopper’s contribution to COBOL programming language was ignored completely; another example is Madam Jacquard who developed the much improved loom also called jacquard loom but it was credited to her husband. During my lectures at Harvard as well as MIT, I asked as to how many students knew about Stanley’s work, but not a single hand went up. In the literature on inventions and innovations, her work is seldom cited. Thus, it is not only just that women’s creativity is ignored, even evidence about this is ignored. Moreover, women writing about women’s inventions seem to be ignored as well. The self-effacing nature of women comes out in several interactions with local populations during the shodhyatras. When asked some specific questions about farming, some of them will invariably defer to their husbands for answers, claiming that the men only know everything. Gangaben had written a book titled Hunnar Mahasagar—an encyclopedia of 2080 self-employment practices in 1898. It is said that 1000 copies were sold in one day. SRISTI has republished this out-of-print book in Gujarati and Hindi. It shows that there were women writers who pooled the popular knowledge for self-reliant development more than 100 years ago. By neglecting such literature in the contemporary history of science, technology and innovation, we do a great disservice to pioneering women innovators and chroniclers. Many of these practices she had collected from women, though as per the prevailing norm at that time, these were not acknowledged in her text. Gangaben had become a widow at the age of fourteen and later became a schoolteacher. There is no department of everyday life for which she has not a solution, be it removing stains, finding adulteration in different edible things, making one’s one ink or dyes, etc. The work of Gangaben is no less ignored than that of Autumn Stanley. The inertia in converting feelings into action takes place not only while recognizing the gaps in women technological use but also in many other areas( 2016:131-133)”.



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