Hacking the Sports Bra at MIT

Zeroing in on the Problem

In June last year, Proctor & Gamble published a press release discussing the results of its Always Confidence & Puberty Study. One of their key findings was that 51% of girls give up sports by the end of puberty.

In February last year, Alain Joffe published a paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health where he released results from a survey of >2,000 girls from ages 11–18. According to his survey, 73% of the girls reported at least one concern about their breasts, including 30% who cited breast pain during exercise.

When I first learned about this data, I was distressed. Unfortunately, I was not surprised. The reality is that a quick look at our world reinforces the same message. I tried to find data that showed how much bigger the global sports industry was for men vs. women, and wasn’t able to find any statistics on the women’s market. That lack of information, itself, speaks volumes.

Additionally, the anecdotal experience I had when talking to people about this topic was overwhelming! For the better part of a month, it felt like every woman I met had a critical sports bra failure story that she felt compelled to share.

Why does this matter?

I hope these statistics have already shaken you and left you angry, but if you’re still skeptical, here are a few reasons why sports matters so much.

First, participation in sports helps create healthy habits by promoting exercise. With the rapidly increasing prevalence of chronic lifestyle illnesses like obesity, Type II diabetes and hypertension, it is more important than ever that adolescents develop the skills and inclination for fitness early on in life.

Second, sports are a fantastic way to develop soft skills and self-esteem. Sports teach athletes about winning, losing, teamwork, leadership, persistence and plenty more. These traits are not only helpful in growth and development, but also contribute significantly to professional success. In fact, an EY study found that 94% of women in the C-suite played a sport.

Starting to look for solutions

With all of this in mind, I have been eager to work on projects that allow me to advance the goal of keeping girls involved in sports. Last Saturday, MIT Sloan Women in Management organized a hackathon focused on attacking problems of unconscious bias, and invited me to be a Team Lead. Because the physical and emotional pain associated with breasts during adolescence is such a big contributor to girls dropping out of sports, I was delighted to work on hacking the sports bra!

Sports bra team translating ideas into prototypes

The event was a phenomenal opportunity to have frank discussions about the issues, and generate enthusiasm about finding a solution. We had a very productive session thinking through the broad array of problems girls face as they navigate through a difficult stage of life.

Brainstorm on array of problems girls face with current sports bras

We also came up with an important insight: athletic apparel companies have poured billions of dollars into R&D for athletic shoes, yet the 2017 sports bra still looks remarkably like the 1970s bra — two jockstraps sewn together.

While we didn’t create a brilliant new product in the event, we left even more invigorated to continue trying, and asking tough questions of the companies that are positioned to do it.