My first trip to CES in 2013 felt like I had gate-crashed the boys' club.
I was one of the only women at the fair who was not a "booth babe". The speaker line-up was almost entirely male and the one place where women had considerable presence was in the marketing imagery for hoovers, washing machines and dishwashers.
So, this month at CES 2023 I couldn't help but reflect on the changes over the course of the past ten years. What difference had a decade made? Had the notorious #CESGenderBias moment of 2019 been a catalyst for reflection and change? Sadly, not as much as it should have been.
“She didn't finish her sentence; the silence said it all”
CES feels a bit like prospecting: sift through enough terabytes of the banal and you'll likely hit gold. Gold, in this instance, is a tech innovation which offers a strong value proposition and shines a light on the future of technology and, by mutuality, society itself. The Women’s health section at Eureka Park is a reliable place to hit "pay dirt", so it was here I headed first.
When I spoke to one exhibitor about the response to her product, she said: "To be honest, it's really tough to get male show-goers to see the value in it and I'm a woman of colour so…". She didn't finish her sentence; the silence said it all.
Despite the buzz in the media, when it comes to investment, "Femtech" is still a sector struggling to find equality. A recent study by Pitchbook noted that women's health only receives 4 percent of healthcare research and development funding worldwide.
In 2021, CTA and the World Bank launched The Global Woman's Health Tech Awards to recognise innovative start-ups that leverage tech to improve women's health and safety in emerging markets. The winners showed a sophisticated understanding of the users' emotional needs, alongside life-changing functionality.
Take, for example, iBreastExam. The non-invasive, ultra-portable wireless device enables early detection and easy diagnosis of breast cancer in regions where access to medical support is limited. The results are shared instantly, avoiding torturous wait times, and the process is pain-free, unlike more traditional screening techniques such as mammograms, which are painful. With breast cancer the world's most prevalent cancer affecting one in eight women during their lifetimes, iBreastExam is a powerful example of tech innovation at its best.
I was sad to see no sign of the Global Woman's Health Tech Awards continuing this year, especially as the CES theme of 2023 was "Human Security for All".
“A quick count of the CES Innovation Award judging panel showed 12 women to 75 men”
How can we improve the status quo for 50 per cent of the world's population? One answer may lie in better representation. A quick count of the CES Innovation Award judging panel showed 12 women to 75 men. This shortfall is important, as the innovation awards draw the attention of journalists and investors. If male attendees can't see the value in Femtech, then representation on judging panels matters. As Anias Nin shrewdly reflected "we see things as we are, not as they are". If lived experience is critical to perceiving value, then it follows that the more diverse a judging panel is, the better it will be at forming an opinion on what is award worthy.
One female-health-friendly product awarded at this year's show – but still splitting public opinion somewhat – was Withings U-Scan. The small, pebble-shaped, hands-free urine lab sits under the toilet rim and can track 100 biomarkers, allowing users to easily monitor hydration, nutrition, and menstrual cycles.
"They are literally taking the piss," quipped a male show attendee as we waited in line to view the new device. Yet, for the millions of women worldwide who must wake up to the hopes, fears and stresses of ovulation stick tests, the U-Scan is no joke.
Another launch aiming to make health monitoring seamless was the Evie Smart Ring, which gathers insights such as resting heart rate, heart rate variability, oxygen saturation, respiration rate and skin temperature variability. The ring has been given FDA clearance, making it the world's first medical-grade wearable to empower healthy lifestyles through personalised insights, delivered via an app.
While the sleek design offers a nice lifestyle fit, what really excited me was where the new data gathered by this device could lead. After all, women have only been included in clinical trials since the mid-1990s, partly because of the misheld belief that fluctuating hormones would make women difficult to study.
The fact the ring was designed to support women throughout their life stages (including those who are perimenopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal) generated a surprising number of headlines during the show, underlining the fact that Femtech solutions have a long way to go when it comes to normalising female health issues.
Conversely, it also emphasised the fact that Femtech can advance technology and culture for everyone – men and women alike – as it is mainstreaming topics that have been taboo for centuries. The growing conversation around menopause in women has stimulated discussion about the male menopause: men can develop depression, loss of sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and other physical and emotional symptoms when they reach their late 40s to early 50s.
"Femtech", as a term, is currently sparking important debate. People are questioning whether the phrase, coined in by Ida Tin in 2016 to promote female health and wellness, is in fact doing the opposite, by causing an "othering" effect where Femtech is unduly separated from broader health and wellness tech and positioned as "niche". There is no such thing as "Mentech", after all.
Furthermore, does the gender-binary term "Femtech" alienate people who may identify as intersex, trans or non-conforming? Many people who might benefit from Femtech functions (such as menstruation apps) do not identify as female. If the future of tech is a space where we escape the constructs of our bodies, then surely the associated vocabulary needs to match this ambition.
While the lack of diversity on judging panels felt tone-deaf, on a more positive note, there was an increase in female voices on stage. A standout was Alice Xiang, head of Sony Group's AI ethics office and senior AI research scientist, who spoke about the importance of diversity when designing future products like AI.
"First, I would say please enter this field," she said. "It's extremely low-diversity and that's a big problem when we think about tackling problems like systemic biases in AI. When you’re talking about developing an AI product, it starts with who’s in the room and that group of people needs to be diverse. We need diverse perspectives."
Let's hope the CTA were listening, and that the most influential tech showcase in the world makes leaps and bounds in 2024, bringing more diverse perspectives to the fore, paving a way for a more inclusive future.