The "Women Are Broken" Industry


I get to visit a fair few start-ups. Some are hopelessly idealistic (my favourites!) some are hopelessly cynical. Recently, I got to spend a few hours with a new "Quantified Self" start-up. For the sake of protecting the guilty - let's call them "Fronk."

Fronk have decided that women are under-served in the wearables market. Their (male) CEO, (male) chief designer, (male) head of strategy, and (male) CTO have the secret to getting women to wear fitness trackers - gold plate them, cover them in crystals, and sell them as though they were jewellery.

OK, fair enough, I'm sure their market research bears that out - but what are they really selling? That was the rather blunt question I asked them.

"Wellness!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"We sell wellness. We let a women know when she is feeling stressed, what times of the day her heart rate spikes, and we provide a support system to help women cope with the rigours of everyday life."

"Ah," I said, almost without thinking, "You mean 'Women are broken - let's fix them.'"

There was a sharp intake of breath. Then a little disagreement. Not all of it friendly.

"No!" They contended, "We believe that modern women face a multitude of challenges - and they are primarily concerned with their Wellness."

"OK, but what is Wellness?"

"Women feel that the stresses of modern life can have a negative impact on their Wellness. We want to help them feel better about themselves, and feel more confident that they understand their bodies."

"Women are sad - buy our tracker and feel happy?"

"It's more than a feeling - we want them to understand what their body is going through. Our new Fronk-Bracelet helps a woman understand her hormonal cycle. An essential part of Wellness."

"Oh! So it's a medical device?"

"No no no - it's a Wellness device."

"But surely measuring fertility and giving advice based on that would make it a medical service?"

"It's a Wellness service. We don't make any medical claims."

I looked around their open-plan co-working space. A space I'd wandered into without being challenged by security. Where several employees had gone to lunch and left their computers unlocked. Where passwords and server configs were written on whiteboards.

"Where do you store this medica... excuse me! Where do you store this Wellness data?"

"It's encrypted!"

"OK, so this encrypted data - which contains heart rate, stress details, sleep cycle, body temperature - and which is emphatically not medical data - what do you do with it? How does it promote Wellness?"

A pause, while they decided whether to reveal their top-secret plans to me.

"It will recommend Yoga studios in your area. We've partnered with several popular chains and arranged great discounts. Of course, we also take a percentage. And the app will recommend great equipment that you can buy!"

"Right... So this £15 wearable wrapped in £200 of gaudy jewellery is just a vector for you to sell yoga supplies?"

A polite chuckle.

"Not at all! If we detect that you are stressed, we can recommend NLP Podcasts which you can buy with in-app purchases. If your sleep cycle seems off, we can sell you a detox juice which is delivered through your letter-box. If your period is irregular, we'll send you some healing crystals which you can wear with your Fronk-Band."

"Does any of this work? Is there any evidence for it?"

"It makes them feel like their Wellness has improved!"

"So, to recap. After buying this overpriced piece of tat which makes no claims as to its accuracy, you'll tell women all the ways they are broken and then sell them irrelevant Wellness solutions?"

"We feel that Women want to improve their Wellness. And often, they don't even know that they have poor Wellness!"

Very little of this conversation was embellished. The product is genuinely under $25 from Alibaba, the company have set it in some fairly expensive jewellery, written an app, and set up a whole raft of deals. All very impressive - but somehow deeply depressing.

The underlying assumption of this, and many other start-ups is that Women Are Broken. That their feelings are fundamentally negative and that purchasing faux-solutions is a sensible way for them to manage their lives. And if the woman doesn't think she's broken, make up some flaws and constantly remind her of them.

It's little better than going to a "psychic" who tells you that you are cursed and - coincidentally - can be cured for a very reasonable fee.

There are two fairly serious points I'd like to make in this otherwise lighthearted piece.

  1. Start-ups can't be trusted with health data. Seriously, if Dropbox can't keep your passwords safe, do you want to trust the intimate details of your life to a loft in Shoreditch?
  2. Women aren't broken. Preying on people's fears, creating new neuroses, and selling a fix is a scuzzy way to make a living.

Or, as Mitchell and Webb put it:

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