The femtech sector is growing ever larger. What do the successes in this sector teach us about good digital practice? And how can charities get involved? Kelly Bewers takes a look.
Femtech - a term coined by the founder of period-tracking app Clue - is a collective term for technology products, apps and hardware that improve women’s health and wellbeing, specifically conditions that affect women only (menopause and menstruation), differently (heart attacks) or disproportionately (migraines, Alzheimer’s.) It is predicted that the femtech market could be worth £40 billion by 2025.
The majority of femtech founders are women. Femtech often uses forms of advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things, and the goal of many of these products is to enable women to have a better understanding of their bodies and natural cycles, giving them more agency and control over their bodies and health.
The term femtech has not been universally accepted - products that serve half the world’s population aren’t exactly niche and, as investment director Pauliina Martikainen argues, why are women a feature while men are the default?
What can charity digital leads learn from femtech innovations?
Digital can be a democratising force
AI cervical screening product EVA System is used in 42 countries and has been particularly impactful in the Global South as images can be stored on the cloud in low-resource settings and accessed by experts globally. As the pictures cannot be altered, it has also been used for sexual assault forensics.
Oky, a free period-tracking app developed by Unicef, for use in low- and middle-income countries where menstruation is often stigmatised and poorly understood by girls, was trialled in Mongolia and Indonesia. It has seen positive adoption rates by using Bluetooth and offline usability, to address expensive data and WiFi connections.
Innovating how women and girls can access services isn’t just about designing a UX/ UI that meets their needs. It’s also about rethinking the infrastructure and hardware that enables them to access services.
Women and girls in Mongolia and Indonesia couldn’t afford data bundles and faced poor or non-existent WiFi connections, which meant previous attempts to introduce period-tracking apps had not been successful. Enabling them to share the app with each other via Bluetooth - something they already did with games and other social media apps - massively increased adoption.
Observing how users interact with other digital services they already use can help to inform product development for harder to reach groups.
Similarly, as with the EVA product, understanding how wider health systems in under-resourced settings interact can help designers tackle other challenges, providing multi-use products and a higher social return on investment.
Centre your user’s needs
Femtech products have consistently come about because there was a large user group - women - whose needs were not being properly addressed. Charities have taken this further and identified groups of women who continue to have unmet needs.
UK charity Bloody Good Period, which provides sanitary products to asylum seekers and those who can’t afford them, partners with Decolonise Contraception. The two organisations run virtual education sessions working with asylum seekers and refugees to end period shame. The sessions focus specifically on the unique experiences of menstruation for BIPOC communities.
Femtech: The Evolution of Sexual Health for Women is a publication that takes a much-needed intersectional perspective on technology and sexual health, including the experiences of Black, Asian and minority ethnic women and trans women.
Still, the conversation around female sexual and reproductive health needs to be more open and inclusive, as does the provision of services. Femtech startups are great advocates for this change and some of them are taking the time to centre the needs of specific, underserved groups. Rather than homogenising “women’s experience” they are developing informed personas, co-creating sensitively and confidentially, before rolling out new products and innovations.
Partnerships, as with Bloody Good Period and the many highlighted in the Shades of Noir publication, can also be a powerful tool for digital innovation - particularly for service delivery and route to market enablement in harder to reach communities where traditional access is not possible.
Proactively design for excluded groups
Only 5% of femtech startups address the menopause, yet with an aging population and the persistent myths and negative stereotypes about this part of a woman’s life, the needs of millions are not being met.
One survey found that only 36% of women felt prepared for the menopause and just 32% were comfortable talking to their doctor about symptoms, seeking support from friends and family instead. This lack of direct communication with the medical community can reinforce rumours, stigma and unhelpful care advice. If not managed properly, menopause can have a knock-on effect for other long-term health conditions such as Alzheimer's and osteoporosis.
Gennev, an online clinic for women in menopause, proactively designs for its users by creating wrap-around, personalised digital healthcare and planning. As well as providing products and services for managing menopause their website includes education, personal assessments and stories from women to tackle the stigma, misconceptions and poor awareness of the menopause. Using digital tools to create conversations and tells stories, alongside delivering the direct product benefits, can profoundly increase adoption and awareness.
Reframe issues through digital innovation
The Lowdown is a review platform for contraceptives that is seeking to change the way that women choose and access contraception. As contraception is frequently a woman’s responsibility, the platform enables women to understand how different contraceptive methods may affect them and read specific and detailed reviews about other women’s experiences.
Sometimes single product interventions aren’t the most impactful. Connecting existing services can bring new value to an ecosystem. Understanding the specific experience of women in sexual and reproductive health - the choices and decisions they make and how they make them - plays a key role in The Lowdown’s service blueprint.
Address data gaps with technology
Although women make up half the world’s population, often their healthcare is treated like an afterthought. Historically, women's health issues have been under-represented in medical data sets and clinical trials, particularly for women of colour. Femtech startups are collecting healthcare data on women’s conditions, like menstrual health and hygiene and helping bridge the medical data gender gap.
Many femtech founders are taking their data stewardship responsibilities seriously and bringing ethical, design justice principles to data protection and privacy. There are important lessons for how to balance digital identity, trust and privacy needs with the value that this data could play in contributing to improved service provision and healthcare for underserved communities. Ensuring that important conversations about data capture, even if they are backend functions, are included in the co-design process, is essential.
Limitations of femtech
The femtech boom has its detractors. One paper argues that by using femtech without understanding how these products are regulated and how their data is collected, women may unintentionally be losing control and autonomy over their bodies.
The language used to market these innovations often reinforces the stigma and taboo around women’s menstrual and reproductive health. Do women’s healthcare solutions need to be “silent”, “discreet” or “sleek?” On the flipside, when femtech ventures use more precise language in their marketing - “vagina”, “sexual health” or “pelvic floor” - platforms like Google and Facebook are rejecting them.
Finally, many products in the booming femtech market target a certain type of customer - typically affluent, millennial, white. Ava, a hormone-mapping wristband, retails at £249 and Livie, a pain management device for menstrual cramps, costs £119.
How might charity digital leads pave the way for more inclusive femtech?
Women’s reproductive, sexual and menstrual health is a social and economic justice issue. Its impacts are more acutely felt by those suffering the results of other structural inequalities: women on lower incomes and non-white women are less likely to have access to products and services, which can impact education, employment and mental health. Menstrual cycle awareness, sustainable and plastic-free sanitary products and access to accurate sexual health information are not ‘nice to have’ features but essential healthcare services for all women and girls.
Charities work directly with women and communities on the front line and have the opportunity to gain insight that can inform the design of more inclusive femtech products. Whilst many charities successfully campaign for women’s rights on health equality, the femtech movement presents a specific opportunity for design justice within digital innovation.
The femtech revolution is here, but the positive impact on women’s health and wellbeing globally is not consistent. By bringing ethical technology and design practices to the development process, digital leads at charities can ensure that femtech is created within social and economic justice contexts, so that the experiences of women from lower socio-economic backgrounds, transwomen, Black, Asian and minority ethnic women, homeless women, sex-workers and refugee women are provided for.
Kelly is the founder of Impact Edit, an alternative digital agency that builds affordable tech through cooperative innovation. She also writes about feminism, social innovation and systems change @kelly_bewers