Femtech flourishing: how women-led health technology is changing the sector for good.
From kegels apps to feminist chatbots, digital solutions led by women aim to improve periods, pregnancy and mental health.
The femtech boom is finally changing the face of the women’s healthcare industry. Photograph: lolostock/Getty
We know that technology has historically been a field dominated by men. But things are starting to change. Whether they’re helping you learn about your body, or arming you with the tools to navigate the internet better, a whole swath of female coders, makers and engineers are making sure the technology we interact with works for everyone – not just men.
The space seeing the most action is one called “femtech”. Short for “female technology”, it’s a category of technology that encompasses products, apps and other digital services from companies focused on women’s health. This includes everything from fertility and periods, to sex and pregnancy. The term femtech was coined by Ida Tin, founder of menstruation app Clue, which enables people to track things such as their weight, moods, sleep, energy, cravings and bleeding. It is now a market expected to be worth $50bn(£39bn) by 2025 [pdf].
One woman who has changed the space dramatically is Tania Boler, founder of Elvie, a company that sells two products: their first, launched in 2014, is a pelvic floor trainer that allows women to do kegel exercises (repeatedly contracting and relaxing the muscles that form part of the pelvic floor) and is connected via Bluetooth to their phones so they can track their progress. Last September, they launched their second product, a hands-free, cordless, wearable breast pump that they debuted with a rather humorous advert.
On Mother’s Day in 2017, Elvie put inflatable breasts around Shoreditch in London as part of their #FreeTheFeed campaign to fight the stigma around breastfeeding and pumping in public.
“I’ve always seen myself as a campaigner for women’s rights and I always wanted to do that through research and science,” says Boler, who has a PhD in sexual health. She began her career by working with governments on HIV prevention, sex education and access to modern contraception, but it was only when she became a mother herself eight years ago that she learned about pelvic floor health. “I found out that it was this massively hidden epidemic for women,” says Boler. “Most women don’t think about their pelvic floor until they start having a problem, and the problems they have are yucky ones that nobody wants to talk about,” she says. “Starting Elvie was about moving it towards something more positive, and that your pelvic floor should be just as important as going to the gym.”
“It’s just accepted that, as a woman, when you have a baby, you can no longer run or jump on a trampoline without peeing yourself, or that you’re not going to enjoy your sex life, and it’s all put under this ‘women’s things’ umbrella, and actually that’s what we need to break open because a lot of those things don’t have to be that way at all.”
The term ‘femtech’ was coined by Ida Tin, who founded an app that tracks periods. Illustration: dragana991/Getty
Although femtech is growing, there are other spaces that female technologists are moving into to make sure that technology works for everyone. One of those spaces is voice technology. Charlotte Webb is an ethical tech consultant who founded Feminist Internet, a non-profit organisation that aims to fight technological and internet inequalities. Webb, who began her career as an academic and an artist, wanted to change the way that the tech sector not only discriminates against women in the workplace, but also in the products we use every day, too. In one of their latest projects, members of Feminist Internet designed an artificial intelligence chatbot. Initially launched at the EY Innovation event in Boston, the chatbot takes you through the ways that artificial intelligence is being built with biases in mind.
Because only 22% of the people building AI right now are female, making sure that the technology we interact with is not sexist, racist or homophobic is incredibly important. “Diversifying tech is massively about women, but it’s a lot more than that,” says Webb. “There aren’t even any statistics on the number of trans people or gender minorities in the big tech firms. There are on women, but the fact that it’s not even considered as a metric is awful.”
Webb and her team are using technology to show its own problems, and partnering with people such as Josie Young, a feminist AI researcher who designed a guide to building a feminist chatbot. “Although the internet has so much potential for human connection and positive social change, there are still a lot of problems that we need to address, such as online abuse, the inequality in the tech sector and the systemic biases that are reproduced in AI systems,” says Webb.
Much of the fight about getting more women in technology – more women of colour, of race, of sexual orientations and abilities – is about making sure that during this period of technological innovation, there are women making, engineering and coding technology to make it work for them, too.
Five ways the tech industry is improving diversity
Offering coding camps. Only 17% of the tech sector is made up of women, and addressing this imbalance has been a priority for the industry. To do this, companies are looking to dismantle discriminatory workplace practices and help to skill women with the technical training they need. Funding has been pumped into bootcamps to get people equipped with basic coding and programming. School of Code (for adults) and Codecademy (free) are just a few of the courses available.
Employing diversity officers. A recent study shows that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have above-median financial returns, while another study found that inclusive teams make better decisions 87% of the time – and twice as fast. Many companies are finally understanding the value of diverse teams and are hiring diversity officers to make sure this is put into practice. Data from online jobs board Indeed found an 18% increase in postings for diversity officers from 2017 to 2018.
Specialised grants and funding for women. According to a recent report, the amount of funding going to startups with a female founder has not increased since 2016. However, there are now a number of specialised organisations – such as EnrichHER, or grants such as the Digital Skills Innovation Fund – helping more women and minorities to get their tech projects, companies and products off the ground.
Flexible schedules and remote working. Technology has changed the work landscape from stuffy offices and rigid schedules to more fluid and flexible ways of working. A recent report shows that 73% of employees said flexible work arrangements increased their satisfaction at work, and the tech sector is at the forefront, opening up ways of working for people who need their jobs to work around children, caring responsibilities, chronic illness or even long commutes for those who can’t afford to live in inner-city areas.
More jobs for people with disabilities. Currently, the number of people with disabilities who have jobs stands at 36%, compared with 78% of people without disabilities who are employed. This needs to change, and as the tech sector is currently trying to create products to ease everyday problems for a variety of disabilities, they are hiring people with those disabilities who know first-hand how those experiences affect people. For example, tech giant Google is actively making products for disabled people, and 7.5% of their workforce identify as having a disability.
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