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The rise of femtech in 2020: how startups are breaking taboos

By Eve Upton-Clark

Human rights

Jul 16, 2020

Being one of the top 10 words of 2019, as reported by The Guardian, the concept and evolution of femtech is one still shrouded in misunderstanding and controversy. While some argue that as its own distinct category it allows for dedicated attention to a historically under-prioritised sector, others point to the divisive and sexist nature of the term, with no comparative ‘mentech’ industry.

Whether you are male, female or non-binary, chances are you text, call, FaceTime, use Google, Spotify and social media; technology is essential to our everyday existence in the digital age regardless of your genitalia. So why the need in 2020 for a designated ‘female’ technology sector?

With 49.5 per cent of the global population as its target audience, femtech, or female technology, refers to software, diagnostics, products, and services that use technology to improve women’s health. From your first period and attempting to navigate a tampon, all the way to menopause, women’s health is complex, messy and can often lead to gaslighting or misunderstanding by doctors as a result of lack of research. The market is saturated with products that cater to the needs of men and their erections, underappreciating a potential customer base of half the population.

Regarding the issue of chronic pain, 70 per cent of those affected are women, yet 80 per cent of pain studies are conducted on male humans or mice. Another study has shown that women tend to feel pain more often and more intensely than men, with biology and hormones suspected to play a role in this inconsistency.

With this in mind, an era where the healthcare industry is making significant movements in the development of personalised care solutions that acknowledge the inherent biological differences between men and women is something to be celebrated. With $800 million of funding going into femtech startups in 2019, The Frost & Sullivan 2018 report estimates the femtech market potential as “$50 billion by 2025.”

With the opportunity for clinical diagnostics, bio-pharmaceuticals and medical device companies are tapping into this ever-growing market, with some established companies already making waves within the tech sphere. Some clear winners include OUI, a non-hormonal contraceptive technology for women developed by Copenhagen-based Cirqle Biomedical. The non-hormonal alternative to birth control is a capsule that once inserted, rapidly dissolves and releases the formulation for protection within a minute that lasts up to 1 day. This eradicates the toss-up between protection from pregnancy and the unknown, and often unpleasant, side-effects of hormonal contraception.

Another is Coroflo, a medtech firm based in Dublin that has created the first breastfeeding monitor, which tracks exactly how much milk the baby is getting, and directs the data in real-time to the mother’s phone. This allows a deepened understanding of a mother’s body and its capabilities. Also with the female body as its focus, Spanish startup Gazella has revolutionised the fitness app to sync with women’s menstrual-cycles, creating targeted training plans with women in mind.

Focusing on sexual wellbeing, the femtech startup Emjoy, founded in 2018, offers audioguides to help women explore and expand their sexuality through pleasure awareness practices and sessions of autoeroticism as an alternative to the often male-centred world of pornography.

As well as the obvious personal benefits these technologies promote, they are also proving to be hugely beneficial for the scientific understanding of women’s bodies, which historically has been grossly under-researched. Period-tracker app Clue has discovered from its data that women’s hormones differ in East and West Germany. As well as this, sexual health and wellness tracker Lioness has established three different types of female orgasms from their data collection, which they title ‘ocean’, ‘volcano’ and ‘avalanche’.

While all this sounds hugely positive, the femtech industry is not devoid of criticism and controversy. Accusations of sexism, issues of ‘pink-tax’ and trans-exclusion are among some criticisms that the industry has to contend with. “Welcome to the world of 21 st century technological advancements, where brand new innovations give us the chance to… create exactly the same stupid sexist divides all over again,” writes Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill.

Although these are valid and necessary concerns, it is easily arguable that the positives outweigh the negatives in this debate. Rather than evolving as a marginal sub-category, femtech is demanding space and attention to a sector that should have always been a major focus. Despite odds and resistance, the progression and possibilities of the femtech industry are opening up the conversation around the traditionally taboo topic of ‘women’s problems’ and giving them the attention and resources that they have always needed and deserved.

3 ways we can fight for women’s rights all year round (not just on IWD)

Another International Women’s Day (IWD) has gone and people of all genders have expressed their solidarity in the fight for gender equality through events, panels and social media campaigns. Hashtags have been posted, flowers gifted, chants sung and an empowering sense of support has taken over for the duration of Sunday 8 March—or at least that’s how it felt within my echo chamber. But just like last year or after any IWD, as soon as the celebration ends, I always find myself struggling to feel wholly satisfied.

After IWD, it is important that we remind ourselves of the objectives of the day, the feminist purposes and the conversations that everyone should bring forward beyond one single day in order to make sure that the fight for gender justice is a continuous, challenging and ever-evolving one. Here’s what we should all work towards to make IWD a year-long project.

1. Let’s keep it ‘intersectional’

In order to stay alert and make sure the movement for gender justice remains vigilant, inclusive and effective, we must keep it intersectional. By looking at the convergence between systems of oppression and domination, intersectional feminism looks at the unique experiences of individuals while taking into consideration notions of gender, race, ethnicity, class, disability and sexuality.

Not only should POC and gender non-conforming individuals be welcomed within the feminist agenda, but their battle for equal rights should also inform the future of the movement. Feminism is about inclusion and fighting against the discrimination of any individuals and communities struggling under the patriarchy, which means intersectional feminism is the only way forward.

2. Let us not forget the violence

According to the reports released by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), one out of three women has experienced sexual violence at least once in their lives. Three out of five women who have been murdered are killed by their partner or a family member, and worldwide, 15 million girls under the age of 19 have experienced forced sex.

The systemic violence against women and trans people is enabled by a legal and socio-cultural system that has, for too long, denied its responsibility in causing this violence. While each nation has had very different experiences, violence against women is an on-going problem across the world.

By promoting an intersectional agenda, the Argentinian fourth-wave grassroots feminist movement Ni Una Menos has in the past few years occupied squares, taught in schools and churches and connected unions to mobilise and create networks to oppose the killing and violence against women across communities.

The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler wrote in her new book The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political: “The act of violence enacts the social structure, and the social structure exceeds each of the acts of violence by which it is manifested and reproduced. These are losses that should not have happened, that should never happen again: Ni Una Menos.” Even after IWD, we must make sure that this ingrained violence, as well as toxic masculinity, are increasingly challenged through education first and foremost.

3. From 16.3 per cent to zero

In Europe alone, the average gender pay gap is 16.3 per cent. Women earn impressively less than men and therefore have to work harder in order to make the same amount as their male counterparts. Positions of power are always harder to reach, and the tension between domestic life and career is a struggle that keeps interfering within women’s lives.

In order to build a more inclusive society, women must be as present as men in the social, political and economic structures that form our world. Founder and CEO of Make Love Not Porn Cindy Gallop, who is also a prominent voice for the equality of all genders within the workplace wrote on Facebook: “On #InternationalWomensDay and every other day, don’t use words like ’empower’ and ‘celebrate’. Use words like ‘hire’, ‘promote’, ‘pay’, ‘raise’, ‘bonus’, ‘fund’, ‘invest in’, ‘enrich’, ‘elect’, ‘lead’—and don’t just say it, DO IT,” highlighting the need for more than a once-a-year ‘celebration’.

Days like 8 March are important, but only if they function as momentum for an ongoing, shared project. Let’s not leave this IWD as yet another unfinished conversation. Let’s make sure that this conversation carries on, that the objectives remain clear and that the required changes are soon delivered.