Breaching the taboo of womxn’s reproductive system through the use of digital tools
A study conducted by the World Health Organization back in 2017 showed that approximately 810 womxn still die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. This number was ridiculously high, which led to the implementation of the following target in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 3): “reducing the global MMR (maternal mortality rate) to less than 70 per 100 000 births, with no country having a maternal mortality rate of more than twice the global average.” However, four years have passed and the maternal mortality rate (MMR) still remains unacceptably high. Contraception, menstruation cycles and womxn (The term womxn is used throughout the article to include non-cisgender people, and additionally the reader should keep in mind that some people that menstruate don’t identify as women) reproductive systems are still a taboo for many, when raising awareness on these topics should really be the main focus – especially now in the 21st century. Nonetheless, gender has an impact on one’s access and experience to healthcare. Womxn experience an unjust load of disease and death because of inequities in access to basic health care, nutrition, and education. And with 9 years left to reach SDG 3, a study conducted by the firm Frost & Sullivan suggested that womxn’s health is still being ignored, with only 4% of global healthcare R&D spending going towards womxn’s health. Womxn’s healthcare should be – and is – everyone’s problem. And this is where FemTech comes into play.
FemTech is a term used to describe technologies for womxn’s health and well being, such as period trackers, home fertility tests or pelvic floor muscle trainers. In this digitalized, fast-paced world, the development of technological solutions for menopause, pregnancy care and womxn’s sexual wellness among others could potentially fulfill unmet womxn’s needs. This relatively new industry accounted for $46.3B in 2021 in the global market size, according to data reported in the FemTech Analytics Investment Digest Q3 2021 paper. As a matter of fact, professor Gilman from Baltimore University stated in one of her latest research papers that “The Apple app store alone offers over 1,000 period trackers, and the booming Femtech industry is expected to be worth $50 billion by 2025.” This, along with a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of almost 15.6%, indicates the potential the industry has. It is therefore not absurd to believe there will be a boom in the foreseeable future.
Source: FemTech Analytics
Artificial intelligence is in its peak, and many of these companies in the FemTech industry are using it to their advantage. There is an increasing demand for innovative and customized digital products that assist the regular, day-to-day life of women and menstruators around the world. The products in this industry include pelvic floor stimulators, telemedicine, birth control and sexual dysfunction platforms, feminine hygiene products and consumer apps for tracking health. They should aim towards resolving problems such as period poverty (lack of access to menstrual products, facilities and education), reproductive health education and address conditions that affect womxn either solely (like menopause), disproportionately or differently than others. Many rising entrepreneurs have joined the industry, which has been extremely positive because it has drawn the attention of many investors and venture capitalist firms.
Source: FemTech Analytics
One of the key investment points discussed in the report made by FemTech Analytics for the year Q2 2021 is a $376.2 million dollars investment during 2020 in FemTech start-ups. However, what should capture the eye of the reader is the fact that 68% of all of these investments come from venture capital firms. What is so special about venture capital? They reduce asymmetric information. For investors, high-tech start-up firms are full of uncertainty and asymmetric information. Venture capital firms collect lots of information before purchasing equity of such start-up firms, which reduces adverse selection. At the same time, once they have bought into a firm, they monitor progress and provide their expertise to the young firm. They also often take positions in the board of directors of the firm, reducing moral hazard problems of costly state verification. The participation of women in entrepreneurship and investing fields is consequently critical for the appropriate and equitable development of this industry.
Source: FemTech Analytics
A report on Women’s entrepreneurship participation made by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor in the year 2018/2019 found that “there is no region where the percentage of women investors exceeds that of men. The European region reflects the overall lowest percentage of women investors at 2.6%.” This is extremely worrying, since the real intentions behind the FemTech industry might get lost in translation without the appropriate representation in the markets. More specifically, the female autonomy and empowerment that is sought to achieve through this industry is being confused with the monetarization of menstruation, menopause and womxn’s reproductive systems. As explained by professor Gilman in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, “In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission settled allegations that Flo – a period and fertility tracking app used by more than 100 million consumers – was sharing its user’s data with outside data analytics companies including Facebook and Google despite promising users that their data would remain private.”
There is a growing importance of the FemTech industry, but this should not lead us to deal with female reproductive health as simply another tech opportunity. And just like with Flo, multiple other menstruation-tracking apps and FemTech innovations have violated the privacy of the information of its users. The FemTech industry has fallen into the trap of ‘surveillance capitalism’. As said by professor Gilman, “In this profit model, women perform the invisible labor of providing data for male-dominated corporate interests.” The massive opportunity for growth in this industry is quite clear, considering the fact that more than half of the population on Earth is a possible addressable consumer. But this comes with a responsibility. Firms need to be aware of the importance of protecting the data of their users, especially when it comes to an already violated and ignored topic such as womxn’s health system. More attention should be brought upon issues such as the inclusion of non-binary womxn in the use of these health apps instead of focusing on what algorithm will sell more.
An interesting discussion roams around the issue of the monetization of menstruation. Some believe that charging for pads and tampons is like being taxed for simply having a female reproductive system. Others see it as a business opportunity, with the possibility of re-investing the funds earned in R&D in this area or simply earning profit. The ‘correct’ answer to this discussion is left to the discretion of the reader in this article, but one point should be clear: womxn reproductive system and overall health cannot be seen as a simple business strategy. FemTech is a very broad industry that provides entrepreneurs many opportunities: it covers sextech, reproductive health and fertility, menopause tech and others. If addressed correctly, with the appropriate regulations and legislation, it could revolutionize the way womxn’s health has been addressed. The participation of women in, for example Venture Capitalist firms, could lead to matching the feminist rhetoric with the FemTech industry, and giving back the power to the menstruators and womxn who inspired this business in the first place.