Sharing economy and the gender divide

This week I had the pleasure of speaking to Sophia Matveeva, CEO and Co-Founder of Style Counsel, an app where women can get instant feedback on their outfits and style choices from other women and fashion bloggers. Sophia and the team have a clear mission: to provide a stylist in your pocket and deliver feedback on your outfit when you need it, wherever you may be. The app is a three way marketplace, connecting the user with retailers (say goodbye to trawling through Google to find what you’re looking for!), and a community of peers and style bloggers, always on hand to help out.

It was a chance encounter at a breakfast meeting that connected me with Sophia, and our brief conversation about the sharing economy planted the seed for a conversation I wanted to continue with her; to what extent are we in the process of creating a sharing economy that caters predominantly to men?

The sharing economy has emerged through the creation of platforms which provide users with increased opportunities to share and collaborate with one another. These businesses are beginning to surpass their traditional counterparts and dominate their sectors. They are reshaping our lives. But as we celebrate living in a country and a century where women have an equal voice in shaping society, it is worrying to realize that the companies that are weaving themselves into the fabric of our everyday lives are so rarely designed with women in mind. My discussion with Sophia was fascinating as we explored this in more detail and looked at the sharing economy, and the industries it has disrupted so far, through this lens.

The first reason for a lack of women driving innovation in the sharing economy is simply the shortage of women starting and funding businesses. We can debate whether this is situational, socialized, or a myriad of other things, but that’s not the focus of this article. Rather, let’s look at it from a product point of view; when fundraising, many founders come across investors who need to answer the “would I use this?” question before putting down investment. With the small pool of female investors, this makes fundraising for innovative, unproven products or services which are specifically aimed at women very challenging, and it was something that Sophia experienced first-hand. In fact, it makes you wonder how we have made the progress we have. Sophia put it very succinctly; “would male investors have seen the use case for a tampon?”

The wider issue that we discussed which is more specific to the sharing economy was the need to reconsider the now-standard user experience principles of sharing economy platforms when designing for women. Sophia’s observations came from a unique place; she is a female founder launching a business in the sharing economy space, and happened upon this realization during the testing phase of her initial prototype. She had designed, prototyped and tested her business concept with women in mind, but her initial design proved challenging for target user adoption because it ascribed to these ’standard’ principles which generally allow free commenting. Feedback from the users demonstrated that there is a strong fear of trolling among women who use public, sharing platforms. These women have either experienced trolling first hand, or have seen or read about it, and it’s enough to deter them from these spaces. This is an interesting observation that the tech industry is still, seemingly, yet to make. Women are more active than men on social media, and yet platforms such as Twitter do so little to combat the abuse that women suffer on their platform. Quite simply, companies like Twitter, or Uber and Airbnb in the Sharing Economy space, did not think through issues for people who are not like them, evidenced all too bluntly in cases like the Airbnb racism issue.

Sophia’s discovery led her to make several changes in the functionality and design of the platform, making sure the platform was a safe space for the women who wanted to use it. This begs the question; what features could, or should, have been included in the Ubers and Airbnbs of this world which would have made the experience more comfortable for women?

As our discussion drew to a close, I acknowledged a growing realization; digital and sharing economy businesses have given us an incredible opportunity to redesign business (and consequently society) as we know it, but even though we are all aware of the inequality that stems from a patriarchal structure, we are sleepwalking into patriarchy 2.0. It’s just digital this time.

But this realization didn’t dampen my mood, because Sophia is such an inspiring example of a woman wanting to make a change. She is pushing for women’s needs and wants to be included in the wave of innovation that sharing economy businesses are driving, and she’s prepared to tackle the inevitable challenges to achieve that.

You can follow Sophia Matveeva on Medium here, and Style Counsel on here. Style Counsel launches next month in the Apple app store — join the waiting list here