Do women know what women want? A new generation of start-ups focused on their health and wellbeing test that theory.
For years, consumer health technology has been faulted for overlooking women as customers and building devices for the default white male consumer.
Men also control the purse strings, and for that reason, what gets built. A 2017 Crunchbase survey estimated that among the top 100 global venture firms, the percentage of women partners hovered at only 8 per cent.
And look, often the guys are simply uncomfortable with body talk.
Loosely dubbed “femtech”, women’s health technology is a growing multi-million-dollar market, and a flood of period trackers, pink fitness bands and pelvic health gadgets suggests the industry is starting to see dollar signs.
But more is not always better. Alongside the investment in women founders, concerns are also being raised about the industry’s health claims and privacy practices.
Most of all, will these start-ups work for women in all their diversity or just one type of woman?
Who’s in the room?
One of the most successful femtech products of recent years emerged, perhaps necessarily, far from Silicon Valley and its male-dominated board rooms.
Based in Berlin, Ida Tin created the period tracker Clue in 2013 because she wanted to understand her own menstrual cycle. She couldn’t find anything that did the job easily and conveniently, so she built an app that lets people track their period, cramps and mood to identify and predict patterns.
Ms Tin said investors are beginning to recognise there is money to be made in fulfilling women’s need to understand and manage their own bodies.
Still, she acknowledged it was harder to raise money for her start-up than it should have been. “A lot of investors are men, and they may be quite naturally feel inclined to invest in products they can use themselves,” she said.
That’s also been Ms Costello’s experience in Silicon Valley. “We often joke that most VCs would rather invest in the 100th dating app because young engineers like to use dating apps than invest in huge markets they’re not aware of,” she quipped.
Kristy Chong, who created the Sydney-based period and incontinence underwear firm Modi Bodi in 2014, said some men have looked at her across the table entirely confused.
While Modi Bodi has taken a small amount of outside funding, Ms Chong said she has largely shied away from male-led venture firms because she believed most “just wouldn’t be interested”.
Now that some estimates put the fertility services market for example at more than US$20 billion by 2020, such attitudes are increasingly regarded as short-sighted.
Yet while women’s health technology appears set to boom, not everyone arrives with the best intentions.
A recent piece in Vox called it “the golden age of menstrual surveillance”, noting there has been a flood of venture-backed, sometimes junky period apps that appear to do little more than hoover data about the user’s most intimate habits.
That information can be used to inform someone about their fertility window, for example, but it can also be passed on to third parties for advertising and financial gain.
Many men have created companies in these spaces because they’re really interested in data, Ms Costello agreed. “We’re interested in a data play, but we also want to make an impact in the market,” she said.
But in some cases, the users see value in their data being analysed, even by an anonymous product they downloaded from an app store.
In one recent survey, sociologist Deborah Lupton at the University of Canberra spoke with almost 70 women about their use of health technology and social media groups and found data surveillance was not always a significant consideration.
“I’m an open person, so I’m not too bothered by it, because I’m not putting deep, dark secrets about me in to these apps. It’s more general knowledge about me,” one woman told her.
Instead, some women told her they wanted greater personalisation from their products — a step that would require more processing of their information. “[It] seems to invite more data-veillance of their bodies,” Dr Lupton speculated.
The app Clue makes extensive use of its data. It passes anonymised information about users to selected research projects, which it describes on its website.
“I feel it’s our opportunity but also almost our responsibility to give people back as much value as we can based on the data we track, and I feel we’ve only just begun,” Ms Tin said.
While she acknowledged concerns people have about privacy, she claimed the company has always tried to be upfront. Users have the option to access, port, delete and amend their data — what she called the “fundamentals”.
Erasing the taboo
Rather than privacy concerns, Dr Lupton found women had specific gripes about the behaviour of their health technology that highlighted the failure of a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
New mothers, for example, said they didn’t like getting notifications from their health tracking apps about failing to sleep well or exercise. It just made them feel bad.
“I wish that there was a thing that during pregnancy where that I could put in and say “I’m pregnant,” because I got those notes that your sleep is really irregular, and I was like, “Because I’m pregnant!” … It’s almost like it’s shaming you,” one study participant told her.
It’s also clear that the complexity of women’s health is far from being holistically represented. Much of the recent femtech boom has focused on pregnancy — women trying to become pregnant and stay that way.
As Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in Vox:
While taboos are breaking down around menstruation and pregnancy, other health conditions or goals faced by women of different ages, backgrounds and medical histories are yet to receive the complete digital treatment.
Nevertheless, Ms Chong said the growing interest in femtech stems from a greater willingness to have conversations about the reality of a woman’s life as she gets older. “I don’t believe we could have launched a product like ours pre-social media,” she said.
For some women however the basics are still key. Dr Lupton said that while apps and trackers were popular, she’s found women often turn to a technology that’s now decades old when assessing their health: Google.
Dr Lupton suggested it is an effort at triage rather than pre-empting the doctor: using the search engine to assess risk for themselves and their family.
“Everyone Googles. It doesn’t matter how old they are or what their educational level is,” she said.
For now, perhaps the greatest service for women would be accurate online health information with good SEO.