If you could give an example of a product that has improved women’s every-day life, what would it be: the pill? The sanitary towel? The breast-pump?
Some of you may say the sanitary towel. With so many ranges to choose from, it’s easy for a woman to find the type that suits her most. Unfortunately, this is probably because it took until the 1920s for one of the US’s first female engineers to take the lead and ask women what they actually needed instead of relying on what was available. Lillian Gilbreth understood women’s frustrations of the sanitary towel: they were thick, uncomfortable, heavy and had embarrassing names, like ‘Flush Down Ideal’ and the ‘S.S. Napkin’. Using her insight and her position in Johnson & Johnson, she helped inspire new product lines.
As for the pill and the breast-pump? They were first patented by men and they hardly focused on comfort or relief for women, more about the most efficient way to (a) prevent a baby or (b) extract breast milk. In fact, the breast-pump, first patented in 1854, was not that much different to devices used to milk cows. Today, although much improved, they still can be bulky, hard to clean, painful and loud.
Lilian Gilbreth knew nearly a century ago what the medical community are beginning to catch on today: that the best ideas on how to solve problems experienced by us usually come within ourselves. This a view that is also shared and promoted by this year’s TEDxBrusselsWomen speaker, Dr Lode Dewulf. This idea also serves as one of the ingredients behind MIT’s health hackathons: that people can play an important role in solving their own healthcare challenges. Health hackathons look at old problems in a new light and foster medical innovation - which under normal circumstances may take ages to materialise - in a weekend. This is because it brings people across all disciplines to tackle the problem: doctors, engineers, designers and the target community. For instance, in 2014 there was a health hackathon on breast-pumps where mothers were involved in improving them. Half of the winning team, Mighty Moms, were made up of mothers.
Yet, although such patient empowerment is to be welcomed, there is still a long way to go for women to be their own health advocates. In the New York Times article by Pagan Kennedy, ‘The Tampon of the Future’ she highlights the obstacles confronting the health technology sector in the US: that patent holders tend to be men, that men tend to have more social networks to help them get their ideas off the ground, and perhaps the most important of all in my view, venture capitalists tend to be male. In the article, Kennedy highlighted the story of a female engineer, Ridhi Tariyal, using menstrual blood to be able to help women monitor their fertility or check for STDs. She encountered much difficulty trying to get investment since the idea was purely for women.
What appeared to be the winning ticket for Tariyal was that she and her business partner saw the problem in a new light: what if testing menstrual blood could also give indications of early signs of cancer or other reproductive conditions? Once they were able to market their idea in this way, the capital started to roll in.
The story may have had a happy ending for Ms Tariyal, and no doubt contributes to the advancement of women’s health, but she does lay a cautious note at the end of the article: “that if inventors and funders are homogeneous, then so will our future”.