Our culture puts high hopes on the role of technology in improving our lives. New solutions, devices and applications enter the market constantly, and many of their creators are seen as trailblazers, paving the way to a better future, with more well-being. The development and emergence of new technologies is almost seen as a force of nature – it’s coming, and it will make everything better.
We might think that technology is neutral, that it’s neither good nor bad, because it doesn’t have a will of its own. This is true to a certain extent, but it omits the human element. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, first we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.
A lot of research has been dedicated to this question of how technology is shaped by society, and how it in turn shapes society. In the age of Silicon Valley and amidst general techno-optimism, it’s good to remember that technology is always a reflection of its creators, and the culture they are part of. Technology is designed by specific groups of people, in order to serve interests of specific groups, as the organization scholar Wanda Orlikowski argued already back in 1992.
With this realisation in mind, it’s good to stop and think about two questions: who are the ones developing tech products, and what problems are they solving? Once these questions are asked, we can start to think about the follow-up question: what’s being left out? The structures of society have led to a skewed gender divide in the technology sector, on two fronts. While women account for only less than 25 percent of tech jobs in the U.S., the small but growing amount of female entrepreneurs face also greater challenges in obtaining funding.
A couple of years ago The New Yorker wrote about an American start-up that had designed a smart breast pump. It could measure the milk nutrients, was comfortable to wear, and had a huge market potential. When the founder of the company met with venture capitalists for funding, the response surprised her: the men sitting in the board room didn’t even want to touch the device, calling it ”disgusting”.
In the end this device, with a huge market potential, got only a fraction of the funding that for example the infamous Juicero received from enthusiastic VCs. (For those unfamiliar with Juicero, it was a juice press that used pre-juiced fruit packets sold by subscription. The catch – the packets could just as easily be pressed by hand, with the same result).
A study made in Sweden showed that venture capitalists talk very differently about female entrepreneurs than male ones.
This story is not unique. It’s an example of the gendered nature of the tech industry. A study made in Sweden showed that venture capitalists talk very differently about female entrepreneurs than male ones. The study showed that when investors talked about women, they used language with qualities opposite to those that are valued in entrepreneurs. As a result, female entrepreneurs risk receiving less venture capital.
But many entrepreneurs and investors are now telling us not to despair. During the past couple of years, there has for instance been a huge surge in interest towards Femtech, i.e. technologies that focus specifically on female health. Femtech appears now more often in media than before, and there are even dedicated venture capital companies that focus solely on femtech solutions.
Clearly, progress is being made. This is all good and well, but, perhaps ironically, the term Femtech as such tells us a lot about the biased nature of the technology and innovation landscape. It implies two categories of technology: the Common, and the Other, echoing the thoughts of Simone de Beauvoir.
Femtech is an important first step towards more equal technology, but we could ask ourselves if just Tech without gender descriptors would be better. In the end, it’s questionable whether Silicon Valley can solve this gender divide by itself. The business and technology world is only a product of our society at large. This is where change needs to happen.
Hannu Tikkanen is a doctoral candidate in marketing at Hanken. He is interested in understanding the roles of technology and societal norms in management of well-being.
Malmström, M., Johansson, J. & Wincent, J. (2017) Gender Stereotypes and Venture Support Decisions: How Governmental Venture Capitalists Socially Construct Entrepreneurs’ Potential. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, vol. 41, no. 5, pp. 833-860
Orlikowski, W. (1992) The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations. Organization Science, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 398-427