“FemTech” is not and should not be a thing

Women’s interests cannot be reduced to periods, breastfeeding, and sex
Women’s interests cannot be reduced to periods, breastfeeding, and sex
Image: Reuters/ Benoit Tessier
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Welcome to the world of 21st-century technological advancements, where brand new innovations give us the chance to… create exactly the same stupid sexist divides all over again, but with new buzzwords. The latest infuriating example of this is “FemTech,” a word used to describe technology that “improves women’s lives.”

This industry, though, does not encompass smartphones or computers or any of the many mainstream products that, you know, make women’s lives better. Instead, this category of companies “for women” predominantly focused on biological needs, such as birth control, fertility, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. Examples include period-tracking apps such as Clue and a lightweight smart breast pump called Naya. Of course, in defining women by their biology, these products only focus on the needs of cis rather than trans women. And at the same time, the label “FemTech” effectively excludes any trans men who many need such technology. A VentureBeat article on FemTech is at pains to point out that “women aren’t solely defined by babies and breasts”: Sexual pleasure also gets lumped in. And so a smart vibrator that measures vaginal contractions and temperature to tell users how long it takes to orgasm is considered an innovative technology for improving women’s lives.

The woman who created the term “FemTech,” Ida Tin, apparently did so because male investors struggle to talk about female-focused products. “Then, investors can say, ‘I have four FemTech companies in my portfolio’ instead of ‘I have a company for women peeing in their pants.’ That’s hard for a male investor to say,” said Tin, who’s chief executive of Clue, at a a Geekettes panel last April, according to Bustle.

Though the word “FemTech,” may have served the valiant role of protecting some men from talking about periods, taking a narrow group of products and labelling them “female” has unfortunate consequences. This designation effectively implies that half the population is a niche sub-category with a series of body-specific needs. Where, after all, is the talk of “MenTech”? There isn’t any. All the “male technology,” such as voice-recognition technology that recognizes male voices better than female, or phones that are too big for women’s hands and don’t fit in pockets designed for women, aren’t designated “MenTech.” They’re just the norm.

We’ve been here before. In 1949, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, which shows how men are recognized as the standard, absolute human type, whereas women are characterized as “other.” There’s still evidence of this marginalization of women. The male pronoun has long been used as a gender-neutral placeholder, in situations where gender is not specified. Magazines, books, and films that are perceived as catering to female interests are labelled as such—women’s interest, chick lit, and chick flicks—whereas those created for men’s interests don’t get subcategories. They’re just magazines, books, and films.

And, now, we have FemTech. Seven decades since de Beauvoir published her groundbreaking feminist theory, women are still perceived as both other and second. The terminology and industries have changed, but despite all the impressive technological advances, the othering of women remains stubbornly resistant to progress.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.