Technology focused on health promises women more control over their lives

A new niche of the tech industry is taking off, with apps and gadgets that promise women more control over their health and lives. As with all technology, this development comes with promise and peril.

'Femtech' such as period trackers is designed to provide more insights into the body

Women sit during a morning workout session outside Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on Jan. 27. A new niche of the tech industry, the growing femtech market, focuses on apps and gadgets that promise women more control over their health and lives. (Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images)

Technology focused on women, or women's health, has never been a major focus for Silicon Valley.

But that's starting to change.

A new niche of the tech industry is taking off, with apps and gadgets that promise women more control over their health and lives.

The growing "femtech" market includes tools like period trackers and apps focused on pregnancy, childbirth, aging, menopause and fertility management.

Needless to say, there's a big audience for all of this: half the population, to state the obvious.

Since this "digital revolution in women's health" is estimated to grow the sector to a market size of up to $50 billion by 2025, many wonder why it has taken so long for it gain traction, especially given how invested women already are in tracking their menstrual cycles, controlling their fertility and managing their pregnancies.

As it happens, the term femtech didn't even come into existence until a couple of years ago.

The term was coined by Ida Tin, the founder of a popular period-tracking app called Clue, who noticed that many of the (mostly male) Silicon Valley venture capitalists found it easier to talk about their femtech portfolio than about some of the women's health issues these products are focused on.

That general discomfort with, or exclusion of, women's health, has long been a big issue for the tech industry.

A sales assistant shows features of iOS 9 on an Apple iMac in Bangkok in 2015. It was only after extensive criticism that Apple included period tracking as a built-in feature for the iPhone with the Health app on iOS 9. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

Apple, one of the most influential tech companies, didn't make period tracking a built-in feature for the iPhone when they launched their Health app. It was only after extensive criticism that it was included in the feature in iOS 9.

"This speaks to the problems on which investors are willing to put in money," says Huda Idrees, the founder and CEO of @DotHealth, who adds that women and women's needs have often been sidelined in favour of male-centric needs or products.

For example, she says, power tools are comfortable for men to hold but not women, average office temperatures were set in the 1960s for the comfort of the average male, and since biomedical research is based on using males as a representative species, women will experience worse side effects because they're not used as test subjects.

According to Idrees, the increase in products geared towards women is a sign that some of the outcry around discrimination and exclusion is creating change, and that more funding is making its way to this space.

The premise behind many companies in this growing sector is that technology can give us more insights into our bodies, biology and well-being, based on our own data, and that can give women the agency to make better informed choices about their health and their lives.

Julian Grandberry leaps while dancing during the third annual Women's March in Vancouver on Jan. 19. New digital tools designed for women are "fantastic for women's own understandings about their bodies," says Judith Taylor of the University of Toronto. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

These digital tools are "fantastic for women's own understandings about their bodies," says Judith Taylor, a professor of sociology in the University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute.

Taylor points to benefits such as being able to track how many days of the week the birth control pill makes women nauseous, and where in the cycle, as well as tracking ovulation for pregnancy and changes in their symptoms from menopause and perimenopause.

'MDs don't much care'

These are details "that really affect women's lives, but MDs don't much care about."

Further to the notion of technology giving users agency, Taylor says, "Doctors do not seem ambitious to see the root of problems, and apps might be more intrepid than our health-care providers."

According to Taylor, with these tools, women are tracking their symptoms, making their own diagnoses and organizing around these problems to change medicine.

She says, "They did that with fibromyalgia, with postpartum depression and a host of other afflictions medicine didn't want to deal with but now has to."

Indeed, for all the ways that our data is now bought, sold, and manipulated, to sell us things and target messages toward us, this is an example of being able to leverage our own data for our own good, to learn more about our health and make better choices for ourselves.

'Golden age of menstrual surveillance'

Of course, that doesn't negate the possibility of others benefiting off that data, as well.

As we've seen over and over, technology comes with promise and peril.

And where there is data to be collected, you can be sure it's being analyzed and leveraged by as many parties as can profit from it.

According to some, the growth of this market is ushering in "the golden age of menstrual surveillance." In that way, say critics, the data that is being generated is benefiting advertisers and medical companies more than the women the products are supposedly designed for.

Don't discount the benefit

But while critics have been raising red flags about the ways this burgeoning industry might be manipulative, according to advocates, it's not fair to tell the women who benefit from their use that they should just not use them.

As Idrees puts it, "We shouldn't discount the benefit we can receive from these platforms, but rather stay focused on how we can control and monitor associated policy such that the data isn't used for malicious purposes."

Then there's one other challenge: we are not machines. For all the control we can theoretically gain from leveraging new tools to track our own data, sometimes even that's not enough; being able to track your periods and manage your own fertility is still no guarantee that you'll actually be able to get pregnant.

"There are deep feelings of betrayal and injustice when efforts don't work," says Taylor. "Apps may give women a false sense of control over a process that is kind of wild."


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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