Op-ed: Move over femtech. What we need is Equality Tech

By Nora Lindstrom, former Senior Lead for Digital Programs and Influencing at Plan International, and Nikita Shrubsolve, Digital Policy and Advocacy Officer at Plan International

Feminist technology, or femtech, is considered to be technological innovations that enhance women’s lives.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of these types of products, such as birth control, period tracking apps and smart breast pumps. Just like dishwashers and washing machines in the 1950s, it’s nice to see modern technology applied in ways that enhance “female emancipation.”

It is, however, not enough. Girls’ and women’s need for technology that works for them goes beyond menstruation and motherhood. Femtech, as defined above, is at its best nice. Real feminist technology needs to be so much more.

Biased tech can do harm

The lack of diversity among the creators of technology is, by now, well-known. Only around a quarter of tech developers in leading tech sector companies are female. As technology is inherently biased, this results in particular sets of biases — those usually predominantly held by men — being reflected in the digital products that are increasingly ubiquitous in our lives.

The result? Digital products that are outright sexist, as well as ones that in more subtle ways reproduce existing gender inequalities and reinforce prevailing, harmful gender norms and stereotypes. Case in point: the Apple credit card that provided smaller lines of credit to women than men.

Or take dominant social media platforms as an example. Plan International’s 2020 “Free to be Online” report found that 58% of girls surveyed have experienced abuse or harassment on social media. If they are Black, disabled or identify as LGBTIQ+, it gets worse.

Their experiences of toxic levels of harassment online are driving them from online spaces and depriving them of their right to information, networking and education. Meanwhile, perpetrators are able thrive. The fundamental design of social media platforms has for a long time not worked for girls.

This is slowly changing: Many social media platforms are now undergoing retrofitting to make them safer for non-dominant groups. Arguably, however, had they originally been designed by more diverse teams with diverse user experience in mind, this retrofitting would not be necessary.

Beyond non-discrimination 

Real feminist technology is about more than making digital products that don’t marginalize girls and women. Non-discrimination should really be the bare minimum girls and women — and indeed any other non-dominant group — should be allowed to expect from any tech.

Explicitly feminist tech needs to be tech that not only doesn’t marginalize or discriminate and isn’t just geared towards our biological differences, but helps us challenge the harmful gender norms and stereotypes that underpin our society and nudges us towards more inclusive behaviors.

This is Equality Tech: technology that advances equality by harnessing the inherent bias in technology. Sheboard is an example of Equality Tech. It is a predictive text app that encourages its users to use less gendered language when typing about girls and women. Instead suggesting girls are, for example, “cute,” the app might propose “adventurous,” thereby reminding its user of the many, diverse and different things girls are and can be.

To advance gender equality and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5, we need more Equality Tech products. To this end, Plan International has been working with adolescent girls to come up with ideas for Equality Tech products. Over the past year, they have created ideas such as:

— Truthify: an app that tags images as modified so users know they do not depict reality.

— Wardwall: a filter for social media channels that automatically alerts users intending to use abusive language, so they think twice before using it.

The next step is to develop prototypes based on some of these ideas, to showcase how digital products can be gender equality allies and advocate for these ideas to be incorporated into tech design by the sector.

Because as much as a period app might make managing menstruation easier, investments toward feminist technology and innovation must go beyond superficially responding to women’s and girls’ needs. Instead, we must develop technological products, structures and systems that challenge inequality and drive inclusive social and behavior change.

That it is real feminist tech. That is Equality Tech.