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VOL. 45 | NO. 44 | Friday, October 29, 2021

Women seldom get credit – or credit – for inventions

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

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Well, this is not working. You can clearly see a problem, and everyone online agrees with you. It’s not working and the fix, duh!, is painfully obvious. So, now where do you take this idea of yours? To a network TV show or a corporation, a laboratory or a bank? Or, as Katrine Marçal explains in her new book, “Mother of Invention,” it might depend on your gender.

It’s a fact: Thousands of years ago, a human (or two) invented the wheel and changed everything. Suddenly, with wheels, mankind had a way to travel, tote, plow, play and fight a lot easier than before. So why did it take some 5,000 years to put wheels on a suitcase?

The answer is complicated, Marçal says. A man named Bernard Sadow is considered to have been the inventor of wheeled suitcases and patented the idea, though it had actually been around for years. Acceptance of the contraption was Sadow’s, and Marçal links that to the independence of women.

They say that behind a great man is a great woman, and that’s often true with inventions, too. Early cars were marketed along gender lines, with gasoline engines for men only. Teflon was used by fishermen until a French woman realized its usefulness in the kitchen. Early computers were speed-ranked in “girl years.”

“Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men”

By Katrine Marçal

c.2021, Abrams Press

$26

296 pages

These examples are from times long gone, but the issue of gender bias in innovation still stands, Marçal says, partly because “our current financial system was never built for women,” resulting in a “credit crunch” for female-owned businesses.

Furthermore, women’s labor – particularly that which is considered “traditional” – continues to remain undervalued. The gig economy didn’t fix it, but what will is opening the economy to more women and ending the genderization of innovation.

“Who gets to play a part in inventing our world?” Marçal asks. “And who doesn’t? And what is the cost to us all?”

Start “Mother of Invention” and you’ll be astounded. It’s fun and super-informative with tales of innovations that were largely ignored or irritatingly co-opted by men, and back-stories of how the presence of the feminine, whether real or imagined, changed products and processes. This part of the book is wry, and it’s very, very enjoyable... until it’s not.

About mid-book, the author seems to switch gears. No more lively historical tales to amaze and surprise; instead, Marçal pushes those aside, in favor of long looks at economics, “the body” and a relentless focus on robotics. The last half of the book is deeper than the first half, a little more forceful minus humorous sarcasm.

That doesn’t make it bad or useless. It’s just that, separately, these two halves would make great books all unto themselves. Together, they’re a bit of a jolt, like choosing between two great movies, but the reels got mixed.

Readers who enjoy a prelude before the serious stuff will like this book and find much to ponder. Fans who like separation between business stories and business reflections, however, might find that “Mother of Invention” just isn’t working.

Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of business books are read in more than 260 publications in the U.S. and Canada.

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