“Females,” and “technology” both have a lot to do with femtech, but the term doesn’t just refer to women in technology. Female technology, or "femtech," is the industry aimed at advancing women's health management through tech.
What counts as femtech?
The term “femtech” was coined by Ida Tin, founder of the menstrual health app Clue, in 2016. The category refers to a wide range of tools and products, from period-tracking apps to breast pumps that collect personalized usage statistics to even pelvic-floor exercising devices and more comfortable tampon alternatives.
When Steve Jobs released the iPad in 2010, my mother laughed and said, “There must not have been any women in the room when they decided on that name.” Now, in 2019, a diverse group of entrepreneurs is rethinking technology around menstrual and sexual health. A common thread among femtech companies is a dedication to addressing overlooked health problems, especially those faced by women, using technology and data-driven products.
Femtech innovators emphasize that women’s health has been on a back burner for so long that we are behind in recognizing the possibilities that are right in front of us. Menstrual blood, for example, can be used as a diagnostic tool to more quickly and easily detect certain types of illnesses, even cancers, according to the NextGen Jane website. If we had the tech to log and track what someone’s menstrual blood said every month, it would be an invaluable health record for those who menstruate. The femtech industry seeks to address infertility as well, with many start-ups focusing on how to better facilitate IVF and other infertility solutions using more personalized data. Between catching diseases early on, giving people personalized data on their reproductive systems and improving approaches to infertility, femtech could help innumerable people live longer and more comfortable lives.
Bodies that aren’t cis and male have been overlooked and undervalued for a long time, and people have been having to come up with innovative solutions to deal with the effects. Many are hoping that as marginalized voices are amplified, femtech will be able to bring sexual health into the spotlight while simultaneously creating solutions. Of course, in the United States' capitalist economy, it can often take more than loud voices for things to change. Fortunately for femtech products, they target around half the population. According to The Guardian, investors (especially more diverse investing groups that aren’t afraid to talk about breastfeeding or periods) have started seeking out femtech companies, believing their wide audience will be profitable.
Examples of femtech products and companies
Clue is thought by some to be the first product in the femtech revolution. Clue is best known as a menstrual tracking app, but they also have a large array of sexual health resources, including articles, definitions, videos, reviews and more on their website.
• NextGen Jane.
Jane is still in the beta stage, but the product is getting attention from universities and media alike. NextGen Jane has developed a "Smart tampon platform" to look at genomic signals from the cells in your tampon to discover early signs of disease.
Elvie makes products to improve women’s lives, including a pelvic floor exercise tool and a silent and wearable breast pump.
Nurx is a service to make healthcare more accessible. They provide consultations about healthcare and insurance, remote prescriptions and a free delivery service for medications.
• Ava Women.
Ava developed a bracelet that tracks signals associated with fertility and stores personal data on an app, notifying women when they are the most fertile.
Lioness seeks to destigmatize sexual pleasure and help individuals learn more about their own bodies using personal data. They produce a vibrator that has sensors in it, tracking a variety of parameters so individuals can learn more about their own bodies and sexuality.
Controversy about the term.
The tech industry is still heavily dominated by men. Even in the age of femtech, hardly any women hold positions of management in Silicon Valley. Many people (myself included) wonder if naming reproduction and sex-oriented technology “fem” isn’t destructive, both for cis-women who see their “tech” identities going much further than their fertility or sexual health, and for trans, nonbinary and intersex folks whose identities often get overlooked completely by femtech companies. Perusing femtech websites, I was surprised to see how similar the homepages often were. The first thing you may see is a cis-presenting, apparently able-bodied woman, usually white, holding or wearing a product related to sex or reproduction, smiling. Clue was the only example I found that prominently featured an article with information for trans and non-binary folks on the homepage.
When I was in middle school, I got a sweatshirt for being part of the soccer team. It had a panther and a soccer ball on it and read “Lady Panthers” underneath. I was excited about my new sweatshirt until I realized, along with my teammates, that the boys’ team was just the Panthers. Similarly, many people are wondering why there isn’t “maletech” if there is "femtech," and whether conflating female technology with sexual health doesn’t further reduce women to reproduction, something women have been fighting for decades if not centuries.
With exceptions, femtech products were developed for middle and upper-class cis-women: women who have smartphones, who are trying to create nuclear families, who have vaginas and/or breasts and who can afford healthcare and new digital products. Associating “fem” with reproduction and sexual health is a double-edged sword: it not only reduces women to reproduction, but it reduces “fem” to a socially-constructed norm of a phenotypical female. This flies in the face of the queer community’s use of “femme,” which acts independently of physical sex characteristics. Women’s health has been overlooked and undervalued for a long time, and many in the femtech industry are working hard to right these wrongs. It is also an important opportunity to fight against sexist language and ensure that the most marginalized when it comes to health and bodies are not silenced.