Innovation through a gender lens

New social enterprise aims to enhance society, industry

Why can’t the surgeon operate on the boy? 

Sarah Saska tells many people this now dated riddle and waits patiently for their answer. “Even in 2016, people hesitate because their first instinct tells them the surgeon must be the boy’s father, or perhaps the boy’s second father,” she explains. “Of course, the surgeon could be the boy’s mother, but it’s not often people’s first response, and this example illustrates how deeply gender bias is embedded in Canadian society.”

Innovation, whether researcher, technology, or social, is widely viewed as being “gender blind” or “gender neutral,” places where male and female do not matter. But according to Sarah, this is the first misconception we need to confront.

“Because innovation occurs within systems of socially-constructed and widely-shared beliefs about the characteristics associated with men and women, and the behaviors and roles deemed appropriate for members of each gender, it cannot be uninfluenced by gender,” she says.  “We need to harness a gender lens to improve our society and economy.” The question is how?

In search of real-world relevance

When Sarah started her PhD in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at Western University, she decided that she wasn’t comfortable producing a dissertation that would sit on a shelf and collect dust.  She sent out an offer of collaboration to dozens of Canadian not-for-profits, explaining her research interests and offering 3,500 hours of research on a topic of mutual interest that she could use towards her PhD. The MATCH International Women’s Fund came forward. Around since the 1970s, MATCH provides grants to initiatives that dismantle barriers, challenge perceptions, and transform society to improve the lives of women and girls in the global South.

Through Mitacs Accelerate, Sarah received funding for an internship looking at how to promote gender equality through social innovation in partnership with MATCH.

My research is the first scholarly assessment of its kind seeking to understand how social innovation can advance women’s rights and gender equality around the globe,” she said. “My Mitacs internship enabled me to get bold with my approach to this research and it built my confidence.”

During her internship, a PhD student in Comparative Public Policy at McMaster University, Andrea Rowe, came across Sarah’s project on the Mitacs website and contacted her.

A 20-minute coffee turned into a three-hour lunch, and I told her about my idea for a social enterprise dedicated to excellence in innovation through gender equality,” she said. “Feminuity was born.”

Addressing a gap

Through their research, the partners found that there was a major gap when gender was left out of innovation across nearly all industries and sectors. For example, Sarah explains, car accidents are the leading cause of fetal death due to the trauma experienced by their mothers. One reason for this could be that in the automotive industry, crash test dummies were first developed to fit men, leaving out many other segments of the population.

But an awareness of gender in innovation doesn’t only improve the situation for women. “Osteoporosis is often viewed as a women’s disease but in reality, men account for nearly one third of osteoporosis-related hip fractures.  Assuming that symptoms are identical in all people has led to a delay in treatment and diagnosis in men.”

Initially, the partners struggled with how to take the idea of Feminuity and turn it into a profitable business.  Sarah opted to take a leave from her PhD and complete a fellowship at MaRS Discovery District, aimed at developing young people into 21st century innovators. “I developed hands-on, practical business skills to develop Feminuity into a successful venture,” she said, “One of the most important things I learned was to turn 300 pages of research into a two-minute elevator pitch using concepts and examples that spark a listener’s interest. That was a big learning curve.”

As awareness of this social enterprise builds and organizations grapple with gender-equality questions, companies and universities are starting to approach Feminuity.

Sarah’s goal is quite different from most start-ups; she hopes that in the near future, the organization will cease to exist. Not because it wasn’t successful, but because it was.

“I hope that sometime soon, there will be no need to remind people to look through a gender lens to enrich their research, start-up, or business,” she states. “This is about shifting hearts and minds.”

Photo courtesy Jovian Tsang, MaRS Discovery District

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:


Mitacs empowers Canadian innovation through effective partnerships that deliver solutions to our most pressing problems. By driving economic growth and productivity, we create meaningful change to improve quality of life for all Canadians.