We need to talk about taboos

Field Notes | January 2021

There was a time when female-focused design meant making the product pink and adding a zero to the price point (here’s looking at you Bic Pens For Her). It was cynical, formulaic and tackled very few real world problems faced by a diverse group of consumers. What’s more, the actual issues that women needed design solutions for were often stigmatised by social taboos: periods, breast feeding, vaginal health and any number of everyday things were somehow deemed unsuitable for public discussion.

The tech industry has been one of the worst offenders in under delivering for women, despite its liberal and egalitarian posturing. Much is made in the press of inspirational female bosses like Sheryl Sandberg and Emily Weiss, and rightly so, but if you follow the money then it tells a very different story. Research by PitchBook found that in 2018, female-led startups received just 2.2% of the $130 billion VC funding in the US, while in the UK, 93% went to all-male teams according to the State of European Tech Report. In any other industry these dramatic disparities would cause public outcry, but in tech it can go unreported in the mainstream.

In her 2019 book Invisible Women, the journalist and activist Caroline Criado Perez exposed some of the shocking biases that come from hard-coding male dominance into our digital and physical lives: Google voice recognition is 70% more likely to understand men, smartphones are 5.5 inches too big for female hands and fitness monitors do not register steps taken when pushing a pram.

“Ultimately, the issue was that we as women were not able to talk about our breasts, our vaginas or breastfeeding in society, yet this is a normal part of who we are”

Despite these sobering statistics, the last year has seen something of a tipping point in Fem Tech. One of the greatest success stories here is UK-based Elvie, who have built a name through sleek design, smart products and savvy marketing. Speaking to strategy and innovation consultancy The Upside for their podcast series Frontiers, Elvie founder Tania Boler shares the secret to her success: taboo busting.

‘We realised that we needed to stare taboo in the eye,’ Boler told The Upside founder Niku Banaie. ‘Ultimately, the issue was that we as women were not able to talk about our breasts, our vaginas or breastfeeding in society, yet this is a completely normal part of who we are. We couldn’t even say the word vagina, even though 51% of the population has one.’ This insight taps into a growing sense that instead of shunning

taboos, entrepreneurs should see them as little red crosses that mark the spot of an underinvested opportunity. Far from being niche markets, these stigmatised opportunities can be vast, ranging from sexual wellbeing (expected to reach $122.9 billion by 2026) to mental health ($280.5 billion in 2020) and addiction (currently estimated at $66 billion).

‘When I really reflect on what drives me and what pulls together all the different work that I’ve done in my life, it’s been about fighting taboos and bringing into the open the issues that people don’t want to talk about,’ explains Boler, who worked extensively in NGOs and healthcare education for organisations such as Marie Stopes, ActionAid and UNESCO, before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey. A bulk of this work was in HIV education, a crisis that Boler says was exacerbated by taboo and shame in the 1980s: ‘all of the language was around skeletal sufferers and death. Somehow, over the next 20 years, that language switched from stigma to something more positive and shareable. It showed me how you can shift a whole paradigm.’

This was the challenge Boler went on to set herself with Elvie: ‘how can we get people to really shift their attitudes around women’s health – particularly pelvic floor health – from something negative to something normalised.’ Launching a pelvic floor strengthening device in 2014 this was followed by a market redefining breast pump, and resulted in Elvie raising the largest ever Fem Tech investment last year with a Series B round of $42 million. They’re now positioned to become one of the major players in a global Fem Tech market that Frost & Sullivan forecast to be worth $50 billion by 2025, alongside the likes of Cora, Fertility IQ, Ava and Dadi.

In this time of swift social change, topics that were once off the table are suddenly taking center stage, leaving the field wide open for entrepreneurs who dare to challenge the status quo. Boler’s willingness to do this has led to huge commercial success, but she says that it’s the mission of the business that gets her up in the morning: ‘All my life I’ve been working to have an impact on women’s health, but research and policy can be too slow. What’s amazing about tech is how quickly we can become part of something really big. If we can continue to shed light on more of these taboos, then we’ll be able to prevent a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.’

To hear more from Tania Boler, listen to the full conversation by searching “Frontiers” by The Upside on Apple Podcast, Spotify or any other podcasting platform.

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