Digital Health has a Gender Problem

Digital Health has a Gender Problem

Many popular and widely available digital technologies that give health-related insights promote user engagement. By enabling and encouraging self-tracking and self-monitoring, they often aim to serve the interest of self-care and health prevention. Digitizing our bodies through the use of various apps and wearable devices comes with many benefits and has the potential to improve personal health as well as improving health care in general.

However, there has also been criticism that health technology does not always meet the needs of everyone.

For example, it has previously been suggested that many new digital systems for gathering health information target population segments that are not at risk. At the same time, those that could really benefit from new technologies and the Internet of Things – the old, the sick, the poor – often remain ignored, missing the opportunity to make a positive health contribution.

Gender bias across Silicon Valley and beyond

When observing trends in the design of different digital health devices, another potentially challenging aspect of digital health becomes more noticeable: most of these devices are developed largely by men, for men. Also, their design easily succumbs to stereotypically male interests and prevailing ideas of the world. Interests which can be reductionist and excluding. In some cases, the feminine perspective gets completely overlooked, limiting the scope and utilization potential of digital health systems that have a lot to offer in the field of health and wellness.

When health technology design is gender-biased, digital devices and apps sometimes lose a part of their appeal and functionality. But, it is not just about making them too large, too bulky or too unstylish for women to wear. There is a broader and more contentious question of the way women are socially and culturally perceived and portrayed, which also reflects in the way the activity-tracking industry sometimes interacts with them.

Excluding what matters to women

When Apple Health – a powerful native application that tracks everything from calories to daily chromium intake – was first presented, it did not take long for commentators to assess it as gender-biased. Arguably, some of its aspects failed women interested in quantified self-tracking. In its broad and impressive repertoire of functions, Apple Health did not manage to include menstrual cycle tracking, omitting an important characteristic of female health and well-being women have been trying to monitor and track for centuries.

Fertility and reproduction-tracking apps for women

Many apps already exist that can be used to self-track menstrual cycle and map ovulation and reproductive functions, Clue and Glow being just two examples. The latter app brings partners into the equation, and sends them digital remainders to inform them the woman is (probably) ovulating and prompts them to bring her flowers and employ seductive techniques.

Deborah Lupton, the author of a study on sexual and reproductive self-tracking apps, points out that the fact menstrual-tracking apps are frequently lumped together with fertility-tracking – and often come in pinkish colors, ornamented with tiny flowers – indicates a very narrow perception of the female body and mind.

Quantified sex apps

Sex-tracking apps are another area of computer technologies with a strong male influence and sexist innuendo. They are often projecting a somewhat caricature view of sex, focusing on numbers to calculate satisfaction, pleasure and achievement. Alien to most women (and men), this approach   does not take into account females’ holistic existence and perceptions of sexuality.

Lupton suggests that these technologies reinforce gender stereotypes and support highly reductive ideas of what is “good sex.” The focus is on the male’s performance, and data can be presented visually in tables and graphs quantifying human intimacy even further.

It is hard to develop an app that is meaningful and comprehensive to everyone. Since these devices offer some undoubted benefits to users, we can expect that in the future more effort will be put into making them representative of different populations and individuals, reducing bias and discrimination.

Women to the rescue

Fortunately, there is hope. Although health technology still has a long way to go, female innovators are bringing designs to market that are specifically made for women. One of those women is Urška Sršen, co-founder of the digital health company Bellabeat. Urška cofounded Bellabeat in part to help make technology better tailored for the needs of women. Bellabeat’s latest creation is the LEAF. The LEAF is smart jewelry that helps women track stress, activity, reproductive health and sleep.

“Women are so far pretty much overlooked as users of technology ... wearables and health tech; as well as the differences between men's and women's bodies and health,” says Urška. “Bellabeat is set to change that by designing wearables and software that is specifically tailored for tracking the health of women.  The LEAF was designed for a female user in the way it looks and the way it works. The technology is wrapped in a beautifully crafted piece of jewelry which makes it easy and attractive to wear while the features of the LEAF are changing the way women take care of their health. It helps women be more mindful of their body and mind and gain control over their health.”

Urška is one of only a few female innovators in this space at the moment, but hopefully as the popularity of female-focused health devices increases more women will develop products that even the playing field regarding digital health and gender.

Continue Reading