Women's Day Spotlight: A Gender Lens for Frugal Innovation (Chapter)

On March 8th, International Women’s Day, the world commemorates the embodiment, multifaceted achievements, and progress of women and femmes throughout the ages. Beyond celebration, Women’s Day serves as a poignant occasion to recognize the enduring challenges and discrimination faced by women and girls. A pervasive reality that transcends geopolitical boundaries and socio-economic realities despite notable change is that of marginalisation, and there is some consensus that, in its many manifestations, marginalisation is a highly gendered phenomenon. This article explores how the relatively young nature of frugal innovation as a cross-cutting discipline may pave the way for more built in and proactive reflexivity as opposed to retroactive additions to established frameworks, it spotlights a significant contribution to the frugal innovation landscape by Dr. Saskia Vossenberg and Dr. Solange Hai

...A gender lens, grounded in feminist theory, can add value to the way we conceptualize frugal innovation, question how (and by whom) priorities for further research are identified and what questions are formulated...  

- Vossenberg and Hai

Their chapter in the Handbook on Frugal Innovation, titled "A Gender Lens for Frugal Innovation," explores the ways that frugal innovations can contribute to inclusive development, bringing attention to  the limitations and oversights in current discourse, processes and outcomes, particularly those that fail to recognize and address gender-specific considerations. Gender blindness becomes particularly problematic as it persists despite increasing research that unfolds the disproportionate impact of external universal shocks on women, girls, and femmes. For instance, the positive correlation between the COVID-19 Pandemic, climate change crisis and increased rates of violence against women and girls. Additionally, women are overrepresented in poverty statistics, have unequal access to education, healthcare, and opportunities and continue to grapple with systemic forms of discrimination that undermine their socioeconomic mobility. For 2024 UN Women unfurls its banner “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress”, echoing the findings and recommendations of academics and practitioners not limited to those within or adjacent to feminist/womanist circles and concerns linked to violence and a lack of autonomy and agency (to name a few).  

Women as entrepreneurs, innovators, and users is also emphasised in literature on poverty prevention, economic growth, and inclusive development.  As the conversation on the presence and nature of the relationship between frugal innovation and inclusive (and sustainable) development research and practice (s) continues to play out, it becomes crucial to acknowledge the gaps within both frugal and broader innovation discourses. Innovation continues to be framed as the panacea for complex global challenges, the analysis of where and how its processes unfold and who is involved in these processes has also gained traction over the last decade. Frugal innovation has emerged as a pioneering approach that goes beyond conventional innovation paradigms by not only providing cost-effective solutions but also prioritizing inclusivity, adaptability, and appropriate technology. However, that does not presuppose or explicitise the consideration of gendered realities and limitations for women as end-users or creators.  Due to the oversight of gender considerations in (frugal)product development, a central aspect of the specific requirements of women as end-users may easily go unaddressed.

This neglect, as discussed by Vossenberg and Hai, not only perpetuates the isolation of women within research and development processes but also hinders their ability to provide meaningful feedback on products that may not align with their needs. Furthermore, in certain instances, women may lack the empowerment needed to actively engage with these processes, exacerbating the exclusionary nature of product development and impeding progress towards more inclusive and responsive innovations. Exclusion from product development not only marginalizes women as end-users but also exacerbates broader challenges faced by women within STEM fields. The questions “why so few?”, “why so slow?”, and “why so low” in reference to the persistent scarcity of women in STEM roles, the gradual lethargic pace of change, and women's often lower hierarchical representation in these fields continue. Due to essentialised framings of gender, STEM has historically been aligned with masculinity, even further the strong and persisting beliefs that science and innovation operate on meritocratic and universalistic principles has contributed to slower change. Ingrained biases, societal stereotypes associating certain skills with masculinity, and a lack of visible female role models. Educational and workplace cultures, along with biases in hiring and promotions, further contribute to the underrepresentation of women innovators and creators. 

In summary, though frugality as a mindset and practice across cultures frugal innovation as an academic discipline is relatively new. This relative novelty places it in an advantageous position akin to an adaptive substrate that can nourish and evolve with socially inclusive conceptual frameworks and critique rather than retroactively adding them as an addendum.  

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