Historically, many products aimed specifically at women consumers have failed.
Gender-specific razors. Long ago, women (in the US) did not shave their armpits or legs. Shaved pits did not become fashionable until the 1900s. Capitalism capitalized quickly. In 1915, Gillette marketed Milady Décolleté, a gender-specific razor. Prior to that, any woman who wanted to remove hair used a straight razor, just as the menfolk did — though the social imperative was not present.
Gender-specific candy bars. Infamously, in 2002 a British candy bar called Yorkie was marketed to men. The side of the package boldly exclaimed: “It’s not for girls,” and argued that it was a man-sized bar for a man-sized hunger. Realizing, perhaps, that they’d left behind a significant portion of their potential market, they then marketed a version of the Yorkie (in a limited edition) in a PINK wrapper, with phrase: “Get your lips around this!” on the packaging. Troubling for a number of reasons. In 2012, Yorkie’s slogan was replaced with “Man fuel for man stuff.” Is that better?
Gender specific pens. Somewhere around 2012, Bic introduced “Bic for Her” pens. The gender specific elements of the Bic for Her pens included “elegant design,” a smaller barrel size (you know, for those tiny hands), and, of course, pastels colors and sparkles. It didn’t go well. The reviews on Amazon are priceless.
Gender-specific snack chips. In 2018, Doritos pitched the idea of a version of its iconic snack specifically for women. Their rationale? Well, they argued that women don’t like to crunch and make noise in public while eating. Perhaps more importantly, they do not like the Doritos dust sticking to their fingers. A proper lady would never lick her fingers, especially not in public. So, obviously, a low-crunch version of Doritos, in bags that will fit into a woman’s purse. While the CEO of the parent company made the announcement, the company quickly backtracked following the (shocking!) backlash.
Gender-specific tools. Too many examples to even count. Amazon lists a gazillion tools designed and marketed for women. For example, a four-piece tool set for women, including a hammer and a box cutter, emblazoned with colorful flowers. Or, perhaps a cordless drill set in hot pink. Or, perhaps, a hardware store that sells a floral design hammer?
And, of course, guns. Whereas the website The Well-Armed Woman offers a top-ten list of guns that are suited for women to carry, others like the Sportsman Outdoor Superstore offer “guns of color,” with options such as “lady lilac” and “muddy girl camo.”
And now technology for women. But what does that even mean?
Early iterations of tech-for-women included the above razors and pens. More recently, “tech for women” has tended to refer to internet and gaming technologies, including web pages designed in pastel colors, websites that sold items of (stereotypical) interest to women. It also included games for girls and women. For example, Silicon Sisters was the first women-owned, women-aimed game studio. They created a game called School 26, in which a girl attends a new school and must adapt and fit in. Audrey Watters characterizes it as: “The player must select appropriate emotional responses to certain scenarios and answer quizzes that provide insights into players’ personalities. The emphasis here is on empathy and networking. That’s a very different set of goals and behaviors than what most video games encourage. There isn’t swordplay here. No princesses to rescue. No alien invaders to vanquish. There isn’t ‘action.’ There’s ‘talk.’” However, while games for girls have not received quite the same backlash as the examples above, they have never been as successful as mainstream games. Instead, we’re finding that more and more girls and women are playing games. All games. No qualifier necessary.
But “femtech” is slightly different. Instead of a ball-point pen in a pastel color, a pen that serves the very same basic function, instead of a video game helped to teach young girls social skills, femtech is designed to track women’s health. The emergence of femtech is still due, in part, to capitalism capitalizing on a perceived market niche. But instead of refashioning an existing product, generally purchased by the public at large, as “for-women” by adding soft colors and floral designs, femtech designs and markets products that fulfill specific needs. In 2013, two period-tracking and fertility apps were released, Clue by Ida Tin, and Glow by Max Levchin. Tin has been recognized as the originator of the term “femtech.” Now, femtech includes applications, wearable devices, and health and hygiene products.
From one perspective, technology specifically designed to work for women is a positive development. We know of too many examples in which men have been the standard for technology and medicine. From drugs tests run only on men, to joint replacements based on male skeletons, to medical diagnostics. We know, for example, that replacement knees and hips were originally based on male skeletons, and many women were less satisfied by their joint replacements than men were. For another example, women having heart attacks present different symptoms than do men, and doctors and ERs have only just begun to acknowledge this. And it has saved lives. In these, cases, technology designed with women in mind would be a step forward.
Femtech signifies a number of kinds of technologies and services, many of which refer to fertility-related issues, including periods, fertility windows, egg freezing, and IVF treatments. Others, however, refer to menstrual products, including tampons, washable underwear, and a pain-control device. For too long, women, women’s bodies, and women’s health has been a secondary issue. That tech companies have taken notice — even if it another example of capitalism capitalizing on a moment — is an important step. That the initiators of femtech were (many, but not all) women speaks to the fact that it is important to have individuals of all genders involved in the health care professions.
Diversity matters in science, technology, and medicine.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.