Is technology working for us?
There is a burgeoning industry profiting off my menstrual cycle. This industry provides technology that maintains my hygiene (tampons), protects against unwanted pregnancy (birth control pill), and tracks my flow and ovulation (mobile app). This industry is largely owned by men.
Ancient Egyptian menstruators used soft papyrus tampons. Hippocrates documented the use of lint wrapped wooden tampons in Greece circa 500 BC. Indonesians of the same era used fern plants, and Africans used bundles of grass. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, doctors in France and Britain recorded the use of vinegar and antiseptic soaked cloth for vaginal use. Then, in 1931 an American doctor purchased the patent for Tampax, and five years later the first modern tampon and applicator hit the market. Along with innovations and competing production companies, came health related revelations concerning the substances used in tampons. By 1980 the CDC linked tampon use to Toxic Shock Syndrome. Yet, the global tampon market is expected to be worth 6.34 billion US dollars by 2025. The CEOs of both Tampax and Kotex are cis men, and millionaires. It’s true that menstrual cups are becoming increasingly popular, and are certainly the more environmentally friendly option- even still, many of these products are designed by and profiting men.
“The Pill” is often touted as a fundamental technology for womxn and people who menstruate, allowing for sexual autonomy and choice. However, critics have pointed towards the inequity in burden this places on us, given the potential side effects and intrinsic responsibility to its use. Not to mention the questionable practices around the original trials for the pill; by today’s standards the low number of participants and the short time they were observed would not be tolerated. Initial reports written by womxn researchers concerning the severity of negative reactions to the pill were ignored by the men in charge. Today, it is mostly men, at the helm of the pharmaceutical complex, that profit from our use of the pill.
I’ve had the Flo app on my phone for the past two years. It is constantly asking me questions about my cycle: “How heavy is your flow? What is your energy level? Any symptoms of pms? What does your discharge look like? How have you been sleeping?” Flo, which was founded by two Belarusian guys in 2015, claims that its main purpose is to track your period and ovulation depending on your goals (ie. the rather limited choice of either wanting to get pregnant, or not), as well as to offer health insights. However, like most other period tracking apps, it does not offer any guarantee that your intimate personal data won’t be sold to third parties. This kind of information in the hands of other private corporations could negatively impact your life in a big way. For instance, it could be used by health and life insurers to deny you coverage or raise fees, and by employers to discriminate in recruitment and human resource practices.
All this to say, much of the “pink tech” aimed at us as consumers is profiting powerful men, and is not designed with us in mind. More broadly put, the dominant narrative of progress as linear, and technology as an innately positive aspect of this progress is complicated when we consider gender.
Even the most banal of technologies, like those aimed at helping womxn to perform their role as homemakers, had a schizophrenic effect. Microwaves and dishwashers simultaneously freed women from time consuming monotonous tasks, while also setting new expectations for quick and easy meals, and extreme cleanliness. In a similar fashion, many feminists optimistically predicted that the technology industry would provide the ideal working conditions for womxn, who could ostensibly work remotely and flexibly. In fact, womxn were dominant in the industry for a short time before it took a sharp turn towards a white bro-topia, wrought with toxic cultures of sexual harassment, racism, and greed. According to a 2018 report, womxn account for less than a quarter of the Canadian technology sector workforce. This disparity has remained stagnant for over a decade.
Technology is integral to all aspects of human life. We rely on technology to learn, make sense of, experience, and move through the world. The more that technology becomes a productive ingredient in the imagining of our future, the more that it matters who is involved in designing and creating it, and whether it is biased, alienating, or dangerous. The exclusion of womxn from the technology sector denies us the dignity of creating our own future selves and the world we will inhabit.
Cockburn, C., & Ormrod, S. (1993). Gender and Technology in the Making. SAGE Publications Ltd.