ESG Investing

What’s in a Name? “Femtech” Creates Controversy

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The business of femtech—short for female technology—has experienced a boom in the past few years. The term was coined in 2016 by entrepreneur Ida Tin, co-founder of Clue, an app that tracks menstruation cycles. It’s just one example of a growing arena of software, diagnostics, products, and services that tap technology to better women’s health and well-being.

However, the term has also raised some controversy. Critics cite concerns including the potential to exacerbate gender disparity in pricing as well as the term’s exclusion of trans and nonbinary communities. It also raises compelling questions about how language can shape the ESG landscape—and how achieving more widespread enthusiasm for ESG issues may require greater efforts at inclusivity.

What Is Femtech?

Although the first products considered to be femtech targeted fertility and menstruation, the market has expanded to include health support tools that range as widely as pelvic fitness and contraception. More products also serve health needs in older age, such as menopause and osteoporosis. For many, this represents a revolution in health products and services

Recent startup launches include Gabbi, an AI platform that predicts risk for breast cancer and helps create an action plan; Eli, which has developed a device able to measure the level of reproductive hormones in a saliva sample; and Vira Health, which launched an app to support users experiencing menopause symptoms.

Although such products and services for women are receiving increasing support and investment, femtech has received a growing chorus of criticism both as a term and as a category.

Unpacking a Controversial Name

Although such products and services for women are receiving increasing support and investment, femtech has received a growing chorus of criticism both as a term and as a category.

First is the idea that the term unnecessarily pigeonholes women’s health. Tin created femtech out of necessity after finding that investors—mostly male—had trouble relating to products focused on women’s needs. Some critics argue that continuing to use it as a term perpetuates the idea that women are a category separate from the norm, defined as whatever is male. They contend that, as roughly half of the population, women can hardly be considered a niche market.

It could also widen the potential for gender disparity in pricing—the “pink tax” by which companies add steep charges for everyday products and services marketed toward women, even in cases (such as razors and dry-cleaning) where items are essentially the same as those marketed toward men. The existence of the category could encourage a greater gap between femtech products and health items directed at men.

Other critics point out that the term ignores trans and nonbinary people, reinforcing a binary dichotomy between genders and defining subjects like menstruation as solely feminine concerns. In response, some femtech companies have updated their websites with more inclusive information. A small number of startups focused on the LGBTQI community have also entered the market.

Advocates for the term say the distinction is necessary to continue bringing attention to women’s health in light of a historical bias towards men’s health.

Asessing Implications for Impact Investors

Disagreements over the validity of the term femtech—and the very existence of the category—may help impact investors better understand the importance of tying goals around inclusivity to the language applied to it. The debate can also spark new opportunities to extend investors’ reach, such as the increasing focus on nonbinary issues within gender lens investing. Ultimately, for ESG approaches to have real staying power, investors will need to wrestle with how key terms are decided.

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