The following guest post was written by Grace Tucker. Grace is Account Director at the Media Foundry, working with mission-driven startups and businesses to enhance their comms strategies, raise their profile and deliver their message in the media. Passionate about women’s health, Grace is also a FemTech Lab mentor, and hosts quarterly events for femtech founders, investors, peers, and the medical community.

Stigma is a powerful thing. It can make us shy away from the most authentic parts of ourselves, make us afraid to stand up for ideas we truly believe in, and have disastrous effects on our physical and mental health. Women have been subject to stigma regarding their bodies for centuries, particularly when it comes to the most natural of bodily experiences, such as menstruation, pregnancy, sexuality, breastfeeding, menopause, incontinence – the list goes on. Just this year, 300 people complained about a WUKA ad that showed period blood, while we don’t bat an eyelid when films and video games show gratuitous levels of blood. Luckily, we are starting to see a shift in the tide, in no small part due to the rise of FemTech, but we aren’t out of the woods yet. Stigma still lies latent, if not dormant, when it comes to women’s health. And reframing these taboos is key, I argue, to truly disrupting the industry.

Recently, I heard an anecdote of a meeting with a male investor, who couldn’t bring himself to utter the word ‘vagina’. Reminder: he was considering investing in a fertility business. It really is interesting to consider how deep the roots of stigma go, when someone is unable to use anatomically-correct language to describe the use of a medical device. But rather than linger on the latent misogyny in his refusal and wishing I could have been a fly on the wall, I began to think not just about the power of words, but the power of what’s behind them, what they signify, and how this can be transformed from a hindrance into an advantage. 

FemTech is still experiencing a high level of stigma, despite being predominantly female-led.  Many female founders are told that they ought to find a male co-founder, whilst others say their emails to male VCs go unanswered. Given that male VC partners are half as likely as their female counterparts to invest in a startup whose senior team is made up of women, and three times less likely to invest in one with a female CEO, it doesn’t appear as though the problem is going away quickly, despite the increasing number of female VCs and angel investors. But as the brilliant Cindy Gallop, Founder and CEO of social sex video sharing platform Make Love Not Porn, said, ‘I’m not here to bow to bias and prejudice – I’m here to blow it apart.’ 

There are certainly synergies between the stigma facing femtech and sextech – both bring subjects that have historically been veiled in shame and taboo out of the shadows. For startups (or well-established brands) in these categories looking to fundraise, bring a new product to market, or raise their profile in the media, confronting this stigma head-on may not be easy. But it is vital, both for commercial success and to overturn taboos. Whether women’s health or women’s pleasure, there’s bound to be uproar in a society that still can’t handle red liquid placeholders for period blood. In that case, why not flip the script? 

When asked why we still even need the term femtech (as opposed to healthtech for example) in light of concerns about its inclusivity, Audrey Tsang, Co-CEO of period tracking app Clue, offered a simple answer (which I paraphrase): that the term was borne in response to a problem (the vast gender health gap), and the fact that this problem still persists proves its need. In this light, the very term femtech is itself disruptive within the context of the wider healthtech and tech industries, precisely because it brings the taboo (women’s health) out of the shadows. It names it. Actively and proudly. Just like sextech. And rather than cowering behind the taboos that are so deeply socially coded within our society, these are opportunities for brands to wield them and disrupt. 

All brands need an identity: it’s the story they tell to their customers, to their stakeholders, to their investors and their employees. To communicate this story from within the parameters of projected stigma can be very difficult – many may shy away entirely; others might sit within their comfort zone so as not to face the disdain of the public or make male investors quake in their boots. Others, like WUKA, stand their ground and face it, full-frontal. And it’s these brands that we remember, that shake the status quo. In the case of stigma, these are the brands that dispel taboo simply by owning it and throwing it back in our faces. They don’t pull their ads – they ask us questions that we may not be prepared to answer yet (such as ‘why are you disgusted by period blood’?). As more femtech businesses communicate and address this stigma openly, the more impact and change we will see long-term. No one said disruption was pretty. But to tell the story of femtech, I daresay disruption is inherent to the mission. Take the stigma, own it, and repeat after me: vagina. 

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