Celebrating International Women’s Day: WMIP Women on Inclusive Innovation — Innovation Insider

WMIP 2.0 programme has been running for almost a year. With many exciting activities packed into the programme schedule, today we are relaunching our Innovation Insider series. And, as we are celebrating International Women’s Day, it is a perfect opportunity to spotlight the incredible women contributing to the West Midlands Innovation Programme. This issue introduces voices from the Virtual Innovation Team and WMIP programme management, sharing their unique perspectives on fostering inclusive innovation. 

Dr Pam Waddell OBE

Director, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands

Inclusive innovation can mean both ensuring innovation serves diverse users, and ensuring the full diversity of innovators get the chance to develop and exploit their ideas – of course the two are connected.  

As an organisation all about connecting innovators across the region, the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands’ focus has been on supporting the full diversity of innovators access to networks and support to enable exploitation of their ideas and technologies. All its networks, events and discussions around supporting innovation are very open to all individuals and organisations in the innovation ecosystem, from the public, private, university and third sectors and from the huge diversity of business and technology strength in the region. We have always focused on ensuring that we represent gender and the ethnic diversity of the region in our speakers at events, for example as you can see from the speaker line up at Venturefest West Midlands this year. 

Pam (centre) speaking at ‘Time to Change: Power of Partnerships’ an event forming collaborative partnerships to advance entrepreneurial activities for the UKs diverse communities

However, with an increased spotlight on understanding of inclusivity in recent years, we have realised that whilst this relatively passive openness creates equality, it does not create equity. There are groups or individuals who are unaware of or unable to access our networks easily for a variety of reasons, so we need to take more proactive action reach and be reached by these.  

To this end, we have recently started a collaboration with the Connected Places Catapult to make use of and test their Inclusive Innovation Toolkit and adapt our networks and practices, learning from their experience and knowledge of national and international good practice, in embracing diversity in all aspects. We have also begun to diversify the venues we use with the goal of reaching out to all parts of the region, including business hubs that work with particular socio-economic and ethnic communities. We have a lot to learn and a long way to go, but we have a clear intent to become a

Rachel Eade MBE

University of Birmingham, Birmingham Centre for Rail, Supply Chain Specialist,

Virtual Innovation Team Lead for Rail sector 

How and where we work has transformed since the beginning of the 20th century. Automation in the early 1900s boosted productivity in factories. Following the World Wars, many more women entered the workplace to replace men away at war., this required a change in thinking re manual handling and lifting.  Today computers, robotics and smart devices have reshaped habits and enabled many to work in different and less traditional ways. 

Over the years inequalities in working conditions have increased as companies have outsourced manufacturing, shifting from local factories to industry across the globe. Businesses in industrialised countries have sought to capitalise on cheaper labour in emerging economies, often with conditions that in developed countries are unacceptable.  

In these fast-changing conditions innovators attention has turned to what businesses and workers need from working environments to maximise efficiency and profit to those that create healthier working environments.  Robotics and automation address improved work environments and productivity. 

Today the challenge has broadened to include the challenges of remote and lights out working. The input of women to these new developments and innovations are necessary to ensure the full work life balance and ergonomics of workplace requirements are fully inclusive. AI will shape our world whether we input to its development or not so needs to be  truly inclusive The West Midlands offers a fully inclusive innovation ethic ,supported by many co workplaces where support and networks flourish to support the realisation of ideas into protypes and commercial products. 

Innovation isn’t just about funding and protypes  it’s about: 

  • • Your long term objective 
  • • Your driving force (tech or problem driven) 
  • • The resources you have – in house and partnerships 
  • • Your networks 
  • • Your time and priorities 
  • • Your budget 
  • • Attitude to risk 
  • • Your desired outcome 
  • • Your leadership attitude  

Funding is a lubricant not a driver 

Dr Beck Collins

Senior Sustainability Adviser, Sustainability West Midlands

Virtual Innovation Team Lead for Net Zero sector 

Inclusive Innovation.   

To me, inclusive innovation means everyone, no matter their background, their race or religion, their health, their gender nor their responsibilities outside of work, has the space to use their creativity to make things better. I’ve been inspired by my employer SWM, who actively practises that inclusivity, to try and normalise these practices in the WM innovation environment. 

The pandemic, and the resulting changes in ways of working have gone a long way to help people like me (with a very young family that I – you know – want to spend time with) to contribute to innovation despite my responsibilities outside of work. However there are still tenacious pockets of exclusive practice, (often in manufacturing, construction, and academia which require in-person attendance and/or less flexible working hours), which can bleed into the innovation space. This is a real challenge for people with caring responsibilities (which data shows are often women), who can get left out of key discussions. 

Beck (left) with Emma and Katie (right) at the Scale Up Summit

This is why I have been thrilled to participate in a suite of feasibility studies funded by WMIP looking at inclusivity and implementing ESG standards in innovation. I believe the far-reaching changes required by ESG standards will fundamentally change the way we do business, and the way we innovate. It lessons the impact of business on our environment, giving me hope that my children (that I’m dead fond of) will inherit a thriving natural world and aren’t growing up to suffer. It drives business to be ethical and transparent, and diverse in their leadership, so businesses are sustainable and can provide jobs in future – for everyone. And it drives businesses to be inclusive in their own practices and wider community, and not build their profits on the backs of disadvantaged people further down the supply chain – people who might be extended family members of my children’s school friends. 

My vision for the future of innovation is to drive forward this work on inclusive innovation and the adoption of ESG Standards across the ecosystem, so that everyone, including talented women from all backgrounds and walks of life, can thrive. 

Hilary Smyth-Allen

Executive Director of SuperTech WM

Virtual Innovation Team Lead on Business, Professional & Finance Services sector

Innovation is challenging but its very nature. The extent to which that is more difficult as a woman is hard to assess, but the facts bear out that there are fewer female innovators and that a more inclusive innovation ecosystem would be better for our economy and society.  I’ve worked in many a male dominated environment for sure – construction being where I started out – and being in a being the only woman or part of a small number of women can be sub-consciously intimidating. It’s not that I’ve experienced anyone being directly unkind or intentionally rude, but there is a gap and one that is hard to articulate until you experience the difference.   

I am inspired by the Caroline Criado-Perez book “Invisible Women”, drawing attention to the data gap in a world designed for men. As part of IWD debates, Radio 5 talked of the deficit of research into female bodies within sport and the impact on performance and injuries from poor understanding and assumptions that scaled down male oriented design works for all.  Self-evidently not by all accounts.  

I am encouraged by the openness of the next generation demanding better. The ‘Gen Z’ generation do not let their gender stop them and challenge when faced with “no”. We need more of this to challenge the status quo. 

Hilary (left) at speaking at the Urban Futures Event.

And I am proud that the leaders I work with in our sectors are increasingly tuning into this agenda.  For example, our recent Innovation Lab with BNP Paribas Personal Finance has strong female representation with proftech entrepreneurs. And another of our financial services institutions is working with us to explore the role it can play in driving financial resilience for the region’s citizens with a clear vision of leading inclusive innovation (watch this space for more on this one!).    

As ever there is more to be done and a long way to go, but let’s not fail to acknowledge some of the progress.  

Katie Miller-White

Transport Innovation Project Co-ordinator

Virtual Innovation Team Lead support for Mobility sector

I feel that (WMCA) has taken commendable steps towards this goal by establishing working groups focused on promoting diversity, including a women’s diversity group and a disability working group. These initiatives are crucial for creating a supportive environment where women, regardless of their background or abilities, can thrive and contribute to innovation. 

From a female perspective, support in the innovation environment can take several forms. Firstly, mentorship programs are vital enabling visibility and representation. Women in leadership positions within the innovation sector can offer guidance, advice, and support to emerging female innovators, helping them navigate the challenges of the industry enabling professional development. Secondly, networking opportunities specifically designed for women can facilitate connections, collaborations, and partnerships, which are essential for career development and business growth. 

Furthermore, addressing unconscious bias and promoting gender equality within organisations are critical steps towards creating a more inclusive innovation environment. Training programs and workshops can help raise awareness and equip individuals and companies with the tools to combat bias. 

Lastly, flexible working arrangements and support for work-life balance are particularly important for women, who often juggle professional responsibilities with caregiving roles. Policies that recognise and accommodate these dual demands can significantly impact women’s ability to participate and succeed in the innovation sector. 

By focusing on these areas of support, the West Midlands can ensure that its innovation ecosystem is not only diverse but also equitable, enabling women to fully participate and lead in the creation of new technologies, businesses, and solutions that will shape the future. 

Naomi Nash

Head of Community & Collaboration – TechWM

Virtual Innovation Team Lead for Digital sector 

Having worked in the tech sector for 10 years, I have observed a mindshift happening within the industry towards the importance of inclusivity. Previously this topic wasn’t a part of the conversation, whereas now I believe it has become a higher priority. How this comes into practice, is something our sector is still working on.    

We know that diversity serves as a catalyst for increased innovation. Boards characterised by diversity are more inclined to challenge established norms and explore alternative approaches to problem-solving. This proactive thinking enables companies to stay at the forefront of developments and effectively adapt to market changes.  

We also need to ensure we hire inclusively to create a diverse workforce. Why is it important? Well, a great example of what happens when innovation isn’t inclusive is the story of when YouTube’s almost entirely right-handed developer team built the iOS app without considering how left-handed people would use it, resulting in 5% to 10% of videos being uploaded upside down.   

TechWM is addressing the gender gap through its recently launched Women in Tech Special Interest Group. This group will look at supporting more women into leadership roles through sponsorship and mentoring. We’ll be encouraging more women into the tech industry by working within education and creating internship/entry level opportunities. We aim to improve the funding landscape by holding funders to account through initiatives such as the Investing in Women Code, and importantly, amplifying the success of women in tech.   

I would encourage all business leaders and managers to do a diversity and inclusivity audit as a starting point; there are plenty of resources online for this including Diversity Matters – https://www.diversematters.co.uk/our-services/diversity-and-inclusion-audit-consultancy 

Gloria Okafor

Project Support Officer, West Midlands Innovation Programme

The topic of women in innovation and inclusive innovation is a critical and multifaceted one that warrants careful consideration in today’s rapidly evolving landscape. As I reflect on this subject, several key insights come to mind.   

Firstly, it’s imperative to recognise the historical and systemic barriers that women have faced in accessing opportunities for innovation. Despite making significant strides in recent years, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields and entrepreneurial endeavours. This underrepresentation not only deprives society of diverse perspectives and talents but also perpetuates inequalities in access to resources and networks.   

Inclusive innovation, therefore, must encompass deliberate efforts to dismantle these barriers and create environments where women can thrive and contribute meaningfully. This entails fostering inclusive cultures within organisations, addressing unconscious biases in funding and investment decisions, and providing tailored support and mentorship programs for women entrepreneurs and innovators.   

Moreover, inclusive innovation extends beyond gender parity to embrace diversity in all its forms—ethnicity, race, socio-economic background, and more. By fostering environments that value and celebrate diversity, we unlock the full spectrum of human creativity and ingenuity, driving breakthroughs that benefit society as a whole.   

Inclusive innovation also holds the promise of addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from climate change to healthcare disparities. By ensuring that innovation processes are inclusive and participatory, we can leverage the collective wisdom and experiences of diverse communities to co-create solutions that are truly equitable and sustainable.   

As we look to the future, it’s clear that achieving inclusive innovation requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders—governments, businesses, academia, and civil society. By fostering an ecosystem that nurtures and supports the creativity and talents of women and underrepresented groups, we can unlock new frontiers of innovation and build a more just and prosperous world for generations to come. 

Dr Valentina Barker

Assistant Delivery Manager for West Midlands Innovation Programme, West Midlands Combined Authority 

The West Midlands is one of the strong innovators among UK regions, according to the EU Regional Innovation Scoreboard 2023. A lot of work has been done in the region over the last 10-15 years to build and strengthen the supportive innovation environment and infrastructure. It provides a solid foundation upon which we can now build an even more inclusive innovation landscape, and it is particularly important for the region, which includes one of the most diverse cities in the UK. It highlights an opportunity to lead by example in integrating inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility of innovation into the region’s growth narrative. 

Valentina (right) with Adam Henson (centre) and Dr Alex Rozhin (left) during filming a piece on honey adulteration research for an episode of the BBC’s Countryfile

Birmingham has been my home for the last 20 years, and I feel very fortunate and privileged to have witnessed the remarkable transformation the city and the region have been going through, and being able to make my modest contribution to its success. As we celebrate the region’s accomplishments, we have an opportunity to embrace the potential for a more inclusive future, where diversity is not just acknowledged but is actively cultivated and nurtured as a cornerstone of innovation. This must go beyond a mere call for representation; it is a strategic avenue to enhance the region’s innovation capacity by drawing on the diverse talents and perspectives of its population. The West Midlands innovation landscape should reflect the rich tapestry of its people, setting an example for other regions across the UK and beyond. 

In the spirit of constructive development, embedding inclusion and diversity at the core of the West Midlands’ innovation strategy and action plan will unlock untapped potential. Championing innovation in sectors where women and ethnic minorities have substantial representation will balance the gender and diversity scales and catalyse a broader spectrum of innovative activities, solutions, and entrepreneurial ventures.