A term used to encompass the software, diagnostics, products, and services that use technology to improve women’s health, FemTech is a growing sector in the tech innovation landscape. According to Tech Crunch FemTech is expected to reach $3 billion in funding By 2030, which demonstrates huge growth compared to $620m in 2018. (Lomas, Natasha. 2020) The industry is in the midst of transformation, and investors are realising the value in female-first start-ups such as Lola, Flo and Natural Cycles.
Many FemTech solutions are about empowering women to take control of their own health & wellbeing. A study by OnePoll found that 61% of women aged 24–34 blame a lacklustre sex education experience for their lack of knowledge relating to vaginal health. Many are turning to Google to fill this education gap, (Melore, Chris. 2021) but do we really trust Google to be an influencer in this area? The growth in this sector reflects a rejection of the status-quo. Women and people with cycles have had enough of the historic, systemic exclusion which has resulted in underrepresentation in health research. (Ijeoma Unachukwu. 2021)
The industry’s rapid growth is encouraging as it signifies not only an increased willingness to invest in women’s health technology, but also a societal shift in which topics like menstruation, fertility, menopause, and sexual wellness are no longer relegated to doctor’s offices and hushed discussions between friends. Currently only about 4% of funding for healthcare research and development is invested in women’s health globally. (Lomas, Natasha. 2020)
Despite this rapid growth, the FemTech sector is still coming up against challenges, as founders tell of the difficulty convincing male investors of female health needs. (Lomas, Natasha. 2020) Yet there are a number of accelerators such as FemTech.Live emerging dedicated to mentoring and networking with potential investors. As well as global conferences such as FemTech Forum hosted by Women of Wearables connecting a growing online community of people who want to learn about, work towards and invest in the area.
There is some controversy around the use of the term FemTech, some argue that the term is not inclusive, whilst others believe that it’s just tech companies capitalising on womens’ anxiety and desire. (Kaitlyn Tiffany. 2018) However according to LSN, 91% of platforms & in the sector are founded by women, most being created to solve a problem experienced personally or by someone close to them.
A growing number of organisations are dedicated to using gender-neutral language, demystifying the fact that people who menstruate do not necessarily identify as women. Period tracking app Clue work with a team of medical researchers, and are adapting to provide accessible, inclusive care to all those who need it—whatever their gender. (Toler. 2021) Brazilian period-underwear brand Pantys launched a social media campaign for ‘everybody who menstruates’ and gained attention as a progressive voice in the conservative political landsapce of the country. Pioneering sex-toy brand Wildflower have created a collection of gender neutral toys and advocate for sex-positive education. This is an important part of the conversation, as we reduce stigma against the trans community, and ultimately reduce the likelihood of violence against trans people. The name FemTech should be considered a business sector and not a dividing gender-focused category if it’s to embrace diversity and serve everybody who needs it.
After years of being underrepresented, 55% of the women surveyed in the aforementioned One Poll study, state that they’re ‘on a quest’ to educate themselves about vaginal health. Many millennials grew up knowing little about their reproductive health, accepting pain as a given and naively navigating their sexuality driven by patriarchal ideals. Generation Z on the other hand, though still subject to outdated curriculum which fails to cover contemporary issues such as consent, porn and gender identity (Walpita, Shanu. 2019), are turning to social media and insta influencers for realistic, inclusive perspectives.
For many, online information about gender identity and sexual health can be a source of empowerment and solidarity. Online platforms such as amaze are dedicated to providing diverse perspectives on sexual education for teens, whilst YouTube channels such as Sex Plus open up ‘taboo’ conversations in a safe, playful space. The growth of such platforms reinforces the need for alternative education sources for young people. This partnered with adults who feel a gap in their knowledge and a difficulty accessing essential health support is driving the conversation and growth of the FemTech sector.
FemTech leaders at a glance
- Menstrual cycle tracking apps such as Clue and Flo allow people who menstruate to track and better understand their cycles. Clue is an early pioneer in the category, with over 13 million users. They have a dedicated research team of health experts and publish papers on a range of issues such as ovulation, reproductive conditions and cultural stigma on their platform. They’re transparent about their use of users’ data; “We have a data set of what people with cycles really experience—one so large and rich that no individual researcher could collect themselves.” (Tin, Ida.2019). They acknowledge that as the scientific community learns more about menstrual cycles and reproductive health through this data set, that knowledge will eventually trickle down to healthcare providers and lead to better health care for all.
- Post-pregnancy wellbeing technology is a niche pioneered by brands such Elvie who create smart breatpumps and pelvic trainers. Founder Tania Boler tells LSN that the products were designed to tackle real issues that new mothers deal with, which have also been neglected by technology. “We did a lot of user research to develop [the products] and we kept hearing that the products now available were really dehumanising.” (Smith. Jessica. 2018)
What the Future Holds
Although the term ‘FemTech has been around since Ida coined it in 2016, the sector has steadily been gaining attention since 2018, when The Future Laboratory described the industry as ‘once niche, now rapidly growing’. (Smith, Jessica.2018) However as with any ‘hype’ tech scene, there are always going to be cheap copies, tainting not only the industry’s credibility, but in this case potentially causing real harm. As Tiffany relates in her article for VOX, security vulnerabilities, misinformation and the commodification of intimate health make for potentially damaging technologies. She tells of women who have used fertility tracking apps which claimed to be 93% effective, and ended up with unwanted pregnancies. (Kaitlyn, Tiffany.2018)
The industry must recognise that problematic products exist and will continue to emerge. However the legitimate, research-backed startups that are already making waves are creating innovation in health and wellbeing in a manner of empowering, exciting ways. Directing investment towards health research, FemTech is positively influencing research for the benefit of women, people with cycles, and other historically marginalized groups. People who use this technology will benefit from the growing conversation around FemTech. As users learn to critically evaluate what works and what doesn’t, the industry will evolve based on real feedback, questioning and critique.
I’m currently designing a speculative platform to connect FemTech Startups with engaged audiences for user testing. The platform is still in the research stages as part of my Masters in UX Design at Falmouth University. I’m conducting a short survey for FemTech Startups to gather information on your needs, I’d be grateful if you have 5 minutes to fill it out, it’s hosted on Maze and linked here.
Images (Top to bottom, left to right):The Future Laboratory, Kindra, Evie, The Future Laboratory, Pantys, Clue, Amaze, Wildflower, Kama, Clue, Eli, Pantys
UNACHUKWU, Ijeoma . 2021. ‘Why are women and people with cycles underrepresented in health research?’. Clue [online]. Available at: https://helloclue.com/articles/culture/why-are-women-and-people-with-cycles-underrepresented-in-health-research. [accessed 29th June 2021].
LOMAS, Natasha. 2020. ‘Femtech poised for growth beyond fertility’. Tech Crunch [online]. Available at: techcrunch.com/2020/08/28/femtech-poised-for-growth-beyond-fertility. [accessed 29th June 2021].
MELORE, Chris. 2021. ‘12% of young women have never been to gynecologist, many prefer ‘Dr. Google’ instead’. Study Finds [online]. Available at: https://www.studyfinds.org/women-gynecologist-vaginal-health-google. [accessed 29th June 2021].
KAITLYN, Tiffany. 2018. ‘Period Tracking Apps Are Not For Women’. VOX Media [online]. Available at: vox.com/the-goods/2018/11/13/18079458/menstrual-tracking-surveillance-glow-clue-apple-health. [accessed 28th June 2021].
WALPITA, Shanu. 2019. ‘Sex Re-Education’. LSN Global [online]. Available at: https://www-lsnglobal-com.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/health-wellness/article/24049/sex-re-education. [accessed 28th June 2021].
SMITH, Jessica. 2018. ‘Technology is Transforming Women’s Personal Care’. LSN Global [online]. Available at: https://www-lsnglobal-com.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/big-ideas/article/22880/tania-boler-on-how-technology-is-transforming-women-s-personal-care. [accessed 24 June 2021].
STATISTA. 2020.’Share of internet users who looked at social media sites or apps in the prior week in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2020, by age group’. Ofcom, UK. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/506329/looking-at-social-media-sites-or-apps-in-the-united-kingdom-uk-by-age-group/
1. LSN Global. 2019. BioTracker preview. Available at: https://www.thefuturelaboratory.com/bio-tracker.
2. Kindra. 2019. Product photography. Available at: https://ourkindra.com.
3. LSN Global. 2019. The Future Laboratory Health and Wellness campaign. Photography Louise Hagger
4. Evie. 2019. Product photography. Available at: elvie.com/en-gb.
5. Pantys. 2020. Photographer unnamed Available at: https://www.pantys.com.br/
6. Clue. 2021. Illustration: Marta Pucci
7. Amaze. 2019. Screenshot taken from: https://amaze.org/
8. Wildflower. Product photography. Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/science-tech/article/45386/1/non-binary-gender-free-sex-toys-enby-wild-flower-accessible-pleasure-industry
9. Kama. 2020. LSN Global. Available at: https://www.lsnglobal.com/news/article/26289/this-sexual-wellness-practice-posits-pleasure-as-health
10. Clue. 2019. Illustration: Marta Pucci
11. Pantys. 2019. Farm + Panty’s campaign. Unnamed photographer
12. Elvie. 2018. Available at: Available at: https://www-lsnglobal-com.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/big-ideas/article/22880/tania-boler-on-how-technology-is-transforming-women-s-personal-care.