Leaving the world’s health care problems solely in the hands of men inevitably leads to the creation of products that are blind to biases.
We commodify women’s bodies. We sell them. We glorify them. We shame them. We tell them to be sexy, but don’t have sex. We tell them to have kids, but not too many. We tell them the pain is in their head, that it’s not real. We say it’s just a sign of aging. We call it normal or overreacting.
None of this is new, sadly; it’s been perpetuated again and again by the media and in health care. Women’s bodies have been policed and our health has been ignored or belittled. This is especially true for women of color, and the nonbinary and transgender communities. Body politics are rooted in racism and sexism, and “ignoring [our] pain not only stops us from healing, it actually makes it more likely the pain will become permanent,” explained Lucia Osborne-Crowley, a legal affairs correspondent for Law360.
Women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. It sounds absurd, but the medical concepts of most diseases are based on health care providers’ understandings of men’s physiology; women have altogether different symptoms than men when having a heart attack.
“Leaving the world’s health care problems solely in the hands of men inevitably leads to the creation of products that are blind to biases,” explained Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech. “And these biases can be deadly.”
Historically, the health care system has also discouraged women from asking questions about our bodies and our health. Individually and systemically, this is extremely harmful. When I asked women if they’ve been ignored by their health care providers, several responded yes. Here are just a few of the responses I received:
“I told my rheumatologist I had chronic hives and angioedema. She responded, ‘I’m not convinced.’”
“I went to a clinic because my urine smelled sweet and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t diabetes, and the male nurse asked me jokingly if I tried drinking my urine to see if it was sweet.”
“One doctor told me that the problem with my mental health was that I make more money than my husband.”
“I struggled with PCOS for years without a diagnosis before finally finding a doctor who would listen to me.”
“My chronic pain went undiagnosed by six different doctors until I saw a woman physician.”
It’s worth noting that 70 percent of people impacted by chronic pain are women. And yet, 80 percent of pain studies are conducted on male mice or human men, as reported by Harvard Medical School.
Women have been told that our bodies are less than, dirty, shameful and not good enough. From hysteria to the invention of gynecology, a “science … [that] arose in the nineteenth century to study this strange territory,” it was “conclud[ed] that the female body is not only primitive, but deeply pathological,” according to For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich.
But, as Sonya Renee Taylor, founder and radical executive officer of The Body is Not An Apology—a digital media and education company promoting radical self-love and body empowerment—reminds us, the body is not an apology, nor should it be.
Fortunately, with the rise of women, people of color and nonbinary people in STEM, we are seeing more inclusive products come to market that deeply understand the diversity of bodies and health, especially via FemTech: software and technology companies aimed at addressing women’s health needs.
We have a moral imperative to support, mentor and fund FemTech and HealthTech founders who are taking on an old system that has ignored women’s health for far too long. This isn’t about altruism. This is about investing in FemTech—a sector that is expected to scale to $1.07 trillion by 2026.
We must build a less biased health care system and invest in products that we want for our well-being, not products that we’re told we need. It is urgent that we listen to and trust women.
Bottom line—we don’t need fainting rooms to cure us of our hysteria; we don’t need nail polish to alert us of sexual predators; we don’t need gendered shampoos and we don’t need Apple’s health app that launched without the option to track menstrual cycles. When women, people of color and nonbinary people are left out of the design and development process, we are left with products built by cisgender men and we are sent home in the middle of a heart attack.
However, when historically oppressed communities build products, we get hands-free breast pumps, posture support systems that empower wheelchair users, apps that scan cosmetics and hygiene products to determine precisely what they’re made of, biotech companies that improve symptoms of endometriosis, and so much more.
Investing in women means that we’re investing in the entirety of the population, not just a fraction of it. Shifting to a future of inclusive, more comprehensive health care is more possible than ever—and I can’t wait.