Who is FemTech for?: Intersectional Interventions in Women’s Digital Health
Edited by Dr. Lindsay Balfour
This edited collection draws from cultural studies and feminist science and technology studies to offer a timely and exiting intervention into the growing field of women’s digital health. It explores the intersection of gender and embodied computing, with particular attention to access barriers and the forms of biometric surveillance that operate in wearables, ingestibles, and embeddables marketed to women (the industry generally known as “FemTech”). While the most utilized and profitable FemTech products include ovulation and fitness trackers, reproductive technologies, contraceptive microchips, and “smart” pills, this only represents a fraction of health concerns affecting women. Moreover, while the industry, with a (2019) global market share of 18.75B (USD), is predicted to be worth 60B by 2027 (Emergen, 2020), this occupies a small share of the overall digital health market, which is estimated to grow from 84B (USD) to 221B (USD) in the same time span. Although the availability of FemTech has been increasing over the last decade, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for discreet, portable, and accessible digital tools that can be used in a self-monitoring capacity as a response to an absence of access to regular healthcare providers. Yet while COVID-19 has facilitated the growth of FemTech, it has also exacerbated and exposed significant gaps in the industry.
Whether a lack of critical literacy around digital health, design and aesthetic impediments, the reality that women’s symptoms and pain are not taken seriously, or the fact that most FemTech products still presume a white, middle class, heterosexual, reproductive, and able-bodied user, it is problematic that women (particularly those in emerging markets) still have unequal access to basic reproductive healthcare and women’s health technologies (Wiese, 2021). Moreover, the FemTech industry as a whole exposes a more widespread and systemic series of gaps within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This volume aims to explore FemTech within the context of Feminist Science and Technology Studies (FTST), whereby the entanglements of race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality and other social and cultural identities are brought to the fore. If STS is inherently the consideration of the creation, development, and consequences of science and technology in their historical, cultural, and social contexts, then this collection asks, to borrow in part from Sara Díaz, “what role can technoscience play in the movements to achieve gender justice?” and how are the operations of power and privileged exacerbated and challenged within the women’s digital health milleu? (2020). In other words: Who is FemTech for?
This project, then, brings the sociology of health and gender into conversation with digital culture and intelligent healthcare to respond to the gaps in women’s access to self-monitored technologies of wellbeing, and in consideration of intersectional marginalizations within both the health and technology sectors where racialized and low-income women suffer disproportionately. By addressing the gaps in FemTech research and socio-cultural barriers to access, this volume will critique the forms of knowledge and experience produced through medical and cultural discourses regarding women’s bodies to both highlight the inequalities in women’s digital health, and imagine alternative models which optimises technology for women in a way that is safe, accessible, and inclusive.
As products that simultaneously require intimate access and produce intimate results, wearable, implantable, and ingestible technologies should be desired, but with caution. The knowledge produced by these devices allows users to experience technology at the level of the body in a way that seems safe, intimate, and helpful but the biometric practices of such devices risk subscribing to gendered and patriarchal norms of knowledge and surveillance. Indeed the histories of Science and Technology Studies, and feminist STS in particular, tell us that women – and especially women of colour – have always been excluded from the medical discourses paradoxically conceived around them.
Given, then, the gaps in investment and quality control, and taking seriously the social barriers to access, this project asks: who is FemTech really for? In the academic literature, for example, little critique is given to the intersections of race, class, sexuality and ability in products that largely assume a white, heterosexual, affluent, childbearing, and able-bodied user. As such, FemTech leaves out a significant portion of the global female population, despite its potential to positively affect the health and well-being of women around the world, particularly where class stratification, indigeneity, and other social challenges exclude many women from this burgeoning market while simultaneously making them more vulnerable to harm and illness. While FemTech Collective’s Annual report (2021) acknowledges that “women are much more than their reproductive capabilities, and women’s health goes beyond the needs of fertility and reproduction,” more needs to be done to limit the barriers many women face in accessing these products due to a diversity of marginalizations based on race, socioeconomic status, non-conforming gender and sexuality, (dis)ability and neurodiversity, and so on. Ultimately, this project aims to be holistic in approaching these gaps, to expose the lack of diversity and accessibility in women’s digital healthcare, and prompt a series of critical questions across the FemTech sector as a whole.
Chapter submissions are invited from a range of disciplinary backgrounds including healthcare, digital media, the medical humanities, cultural studies, science and technology studies, gender studies, disability studies, as well as regional studies focused on the underserved areas of women’s digital health. We take FemTech to include digital and/or technological interventions marketed to women in the broadest sense including both software and hardware. Possible topics might include:
- Biometric surveillance
- Consumer culture and FemTech as commodity
- Anti-violence or anti-assault tech
- Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in women’s digital health
- Sexual health
- Mental health
- Taboos and stigmas
- Historical analyses of women’s health and emergent technologies
- Alternative digital health models
- Research, innovation, and investment in FemTech
- Regional or comparative analyses, particularly in Global South, ASEAN, MENA, South American or Indigenous contexts
Prospective authors are asked to submit a 500 word abstract and 150 word bio to Lindsay.Balfour@coventry.ac.uk by June 1, 2022.
This collection is being developed with strong interest already expressed by Palgrave who are looking to expand their Science and Technology Studies list with regards to women’s health. It will be edited by Dr. Lindsay Balfour, Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the Centre for Postdigital Cultures (CPC) at Coventry University. Dr. Balfour’s research draws on the relationship between humans and machines (HCI) and employs an intersectional feminist and cultural studies perspective to look at digital intimacies and science and technology studies. Currently, she is conducting feminist analyses of surveillance capitalism and embodied computing including the concept of “tracking” through wearables, implantables, and ingestibles.
This project aims to engage academics, policymakers, and industry stakeholders and will assess the extent to which women's digital health might address barriers such as the lack of research, investment, quality thresholds, and diversity, while remaining safe, accessible, and sustainable. The project offers wider benefits concerning the global health of women, such as those outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals regarding Women and Girls, and in particular targets focusing on sexual and reproductive health.
Dr. Balfour is a member of the Postdigital Intimacies Research Network and the author of Hospitality in a Time of Terror, published in 2017 and nominated for the Gustave O. Arit Award for best first book in the Humanities. Her most recent publication are “#TimesUp for Siri and Alexa: Sexual Violence and Virtual Domestic Assistants” and the forthcoming “The Fit Man’s Burden: Gender and Commodity Racism in Biometric Fitness Trackers.” Dr. Balfour also has experience working with diverse stakeholders and constituent groups including educators, curators, legal experts, government officials, community organizers, and non-profit leaders.
Esmonde, Katelyn (2020). “‘There’s only so much data you can handle in your life’: Accomodating and resisting self-surveillance in women’s running and fitness practices.” Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health 12.1: 76-90. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1617188
Lupton, Deborah (2017). The Quantified Self. Cambridge: Polity.
N.a. (2020). “Femtech Global Market Map.” Fermata Inc. https://sg.hellofermata.com/blogs/blog/femtech-global-market-map-released-by-fermata-inc-nov-2020
N.a. (2020). “Femtech Market to Reach USD 60.01 Billion by 2027.” Cicion. https://www.prnewswire.co.uk/news-releases/femtech-market-to-reach-usd-60-01-billion-by-2027-cagr-of-15-6-emergen-research-899205870.html
N.a. (2021). FemTech Collective Market Report. www.femtechcollective.com
Thomas, Jenny (2021). “FemTech has a key part to play in women’s health strategy.” Digital Health London. https://www.digitalhealth.net/2021/06/femtech-has-a-key-part-to-play-in-womens-health-strategy/