femtech: the new way men are profiting from women’s bodies
Period trackers. We’re into them.
They seem helpful. They’re a nice way to become more aware of your cycles, your hormones, and your emotions.
All good, right?
Period and ovulation tracker applications, aka menstrual surveillance apps, are part of the growing ‘femtech’ industry, which has been developed under the pretense of improving women’s health.
But what seems like an industry developed for women, may just be another space for men operated businesses to make money from women’s bodies. The apps pose a potential threat to the autonomy of women as some provide delicate information to employers, marketers, and pharmaceutical companies. What’s more, many of the applications aren’t based on genuine medical science and, generally, don’t benefit the women they are meant to serve as much as men-owned businesses.
How is my data being used?
Many of these apps collect sensitive information about you, your health, your period, when you have sex, and if you're trying to get pregnant or avoiding it.
Most of the data being collected by these applications is being sold to pharmaceutical companies, marketers, and employers. In turn, these companies capitalize on this data by serving you ‘relevant’ advertisements, in turn, raising their profits.
But isn't the data anonymous?
These apps claim that the data that they collect from you can’t be traced back to you by anyone, including your employer. Yet, according to researchers from MIT, “It’s shockingly easy to “re-identify” the anonymous data that people generate all day, every day.”
This is particularly worrying for the many women who use femtech in accordance with their employer’s health programs. Many corporations are encouraging women to use period tracker apps in the name of ‘corporate health.’ Take Activision Blizzard, for example. They’re a video game company that encourages its employees to use the app Ovia. According to Guardian, the data it collects from its users is then shared with the company, showing ‘how many of its employees are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or facing high-risk pregnancies’.
Using the applications is optional for employees of Activision Blizzard, but in the words of their vice-president of global benefits, “We’re going to reward you if you do it.” They pay their employees an extra stipend to use the Ovia app and then gain details about their employees’ private lives.
What is the problem with ‘menstrual surveillance’?
There has been longstanding, proven discrimination against women who are pregnant by their employers. Recently, it came out that when United States national champion Alysia Montaño became pregnant, she was dropped by her sponsor Nike, who represents itself as a company that values equality. Beyond that, under the current political climate, women have a lot to fear and fight for concerning the control of their bodies. Texas has criminalized and outlawed abortion, and their legislators even went so far as to try to make it a capital offense, one that could be punishable by death.
It’s possible that these forces may use menstrual surveillance against women, the very people the apps are supposed to benefit.
But who’s actually benefiting from Femtech?
It seems more men than women.
Investors have poured over $1 Billion dollars into the industry, which is predicted to generate more than $50 billion dollars by 2025. You’d think and hope it would be going back to women-led enterprises, but in reality, it’s pharmaceutical companies, marketers, and men gaining the profits. In fact, only 10% of the profits from the femtech industry go to women-owned businesses.
The big boom in Femtech came from a men-owned enterprise. In 2014, the period and fertility app Glow, the brainchild of four men, raised 23 million dollars in venture funding in its first year.
Most of the information that these apps provide to women is inaccurate
In 2016, seeing that there were already so many options and zero regulation in the femtech world, researchers at Colombia University Medical Center decided to investigate the accuracy and helpfulness of the apps. What they found was shocking...95% of the free apps available to women included inaccurate information and few had health professionals involved in the development of the app.
What’s more? The apps generally invest in features that don’t actually benefit women, but instead the pharmaceutical companies and marketers, according to Sara Wachter-Boettcher, author of Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. For Karen Levy, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell, this manifested as her period tracker not being able to understand she was pregnant, telling her she was on a several-hundred-day cycle. Another woman reported not being able to input her short cycles, therefore providing inaccurate information about the actual rhythm of her body. Another was consistently reminded of her late period, even after she’d had her abortion procedure because there was no option to tell the app of her choice.
In addition, many of these apps offer sexist suggestions, like sending a reminder to wear cute underwear on a day where you are ovulating (if you tell the app you were trying to get pregnant). Many apps also include ‘cutesy’ design elements, sticking to the rule of ‘shrink it and pink it’ women’s marketing.
The Bottom Line
Period trackers designed under the pretense that they help women, but the truth is a bit more worrying. The more women interact with their app, believing that they’re doing something good for themselves, the more data they give, the more the industry knows about them, and the more they are served ads. This is the ‘cycle’ of menstrual surveillance. What’s more, is that many period tracker apps contain inaccurate information, which can lead women astray in their search for knowledge of the way their bodies work.
What can I do?
Be aware about the femtech that you're using. Research who developed the app you’re using, the legitimacy of the science behind it, and what permissions you’ve given the app to share your information. Consider what importance you put on your private information and how that affects women at large. Consider tracking your period on your own calendar or speaking to your doctor about how you can keep track of your cycle accurately, in a way that is beneficial to you.
Also, check out The Femtech Collective to find out about women who are killing it in the femtech industry.