Silicon Valley Is Investing Millions into Reproductive Technology: Are Women Being “Empowered” or Merely Targeted?
Forget everything you know about women in Silicon Valley. Yes, there are rampant allegations of sexual misconduct, the notoriously stringent family leave policies, and the glaring lack of female leadership — but the truth? Silicon Valley really, really cares about your uterus.
Tech giants have spent the past several years silently building a monopoly on the future of fertility. In an ideal world, this “trend” would reflect Silicon Valley’s desire to use its power for a more woman-friendly cause than, say, another hoverboard investment. Yet (as women know) this is not an ideal world, and the visage of female empowerment being broadcast from new technologies like fertility-tracking apps and and futuristic IVF clinics belies a complicated relationship between women, their bodies, and an industry that has consistently and blatantly failed them.
As of this article, there are more than 240 unique apps in the Google Play store with the keyword “fertility” in their title or description. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the obsessive popularity of health and fitness apps like calorie counters and step trackers pared themselves down to uterus-specific territory. These apps, with their flowery and vaguely yonic imagery, are essentially Facebook for your vagina. Big-budget, high-grossing apps like Glow, Kindara, and Clue can be used to record and monitor sexual activity, menstruation, ovulation, and more. While graphics and interfaces differ, these apps are unified by their simplicity, their cuteness, and their inherent ability to make the user feel like they are doing something a little risqué but ultimately empowering.
The app Glow was founded in 2013 after now-CEO Mike Huang partnered with PayPal founder Max Levchin to raise nearly $23 million in venture capital. The irony of “Mike” and “Max” founding a pink-and-purple period tracker is extended with a glance at the rest of the executive board, populated by a handful of other men and only one woman — Jennifer Tye. Conveniently, Tye is the head of “marketing and partnerships” and therefore the public persona of an otherwise male-dominated company.
Outside the boardroom, Glow regularly asks its more than 4 million users about the daily consistency of their cervical mucus, the pleasurability of their sex lives, and even their masturbation habits. Supposedly, cataloging this information emboldens users with a sense of control over their bodily functions, or so sayeth the Glow website.
“If I had to describe our current users, I wouldn’t bind them to an age or specific generation,” says Tia Newcomer, COO of Kindara, another popular tracking app. “Instead, I would say they are smart women looking to better understand their bodies, and most are on a mission to empower other women to do the same!”
What a woman is likely to achieve with a detailed record of every time she has masturbated in the past three months is difficult to fathom, but this wealth and depth of medical information — including age, height, weight, location, and more — is fertile ground for hackers. According to the FBI, medical information is ten times more valuable to identity-stealing hackers than bank or social security data. What’s worse, many of these small-scale startups don’t have the same protections in place as, say, a major hospital.
In 2016, Consumer Reports investigated Glow only to find massive vulnerabilities within its system. The loopholes were so large that “someone with no hacking skills at all” could easily access an individual’s profile. Glow swiftly mended the vulnerabilities, and the aforementioned Tye issued a statement assuring users, “There is no evidence to suggest that any Glow data has been compromised.” Yet, as Glow is one of the largest and most successful of these apps — and also one of the few that observes Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protocol — one can’t help but wonder where else our private information is at risk of being compromised by hackers, or worse, advertisers. The loosely phrased privacy policies of apps like Kindara go as far as to suggest your “sensitive” information will be used at their discretion — even in “public areas.” Still, companies insist on spinning this data collection and potential exploitation as “empowerment.”
“With the Kindara app, we are seeing women step up and lead conversations about fertility, sex, and periods,” says Newcomer. “The stigma associated with women talking about these things, which once may have been seen as taboo, has lifted.” There is no doubting the cultural shift in attitudes toward these topics, but this must prompt one to consider: Are the apps actually influencing the conversations, or are the apps quantifying preexisting conversations for more dubious purposes?
Now Silicon Valley investors are taking the next step from simply monitoring women’s reproductive health to actually getting them pregnant. Egg-freezing and IVF clinics are the latest hot commodities for anyone looking to capitalize on that extra few million they have lying around, as evidence by one of last year’s biggest investments. In 2016, Prelude Fertility, an Atlanta-based fertility clinic, raised an astounding $200 million in venture capital before quickly acquiring two of the largest egg banks in North America, thus becoming an industry leader virtually overnight.
A glance at Prelude Fertility’s website reveals it to be a slick, millennial-friendly operation with branding more in line with Refinery29 than Dr. Zizmor. Despite Prelude Fertility boasting a mere three women on its ten-member team (which, by the way, includes the much-discredited Dr. Oz of daytime TV fame), the site has no shortage of images of beautiful young women who stare confidently at the camera as if to say, “I am hot, smart, and in control of my uterus.”
The company touts its “fertility preservation” and “embryo creation” services as a “quiet revolution.” “Women are having kids later in life and that’s just fine,” reads the site’s vaguely condescending copy. While the company is not incorrect in stating that women are putting off motherhood, it fails to mention that egg-freezing and IVF treatments become exponentially less effective as a woman ages. Fortunately, you only need to shell out a measly $199 a month (plus a $10,000 down payment) to find out if you will end up in the majority of women who fail to conceive through IVF. One can’t help but get the sense that Prelude’s board members are slightly more motivated by that juicy down payment than the teary-eyed smiles of gleeful new parents. (Prelude Fertility was unavailable to comment on this story.)
Companies like Prelude Fertility, Glow, and the like would not be so distinctly disturbing were it not for the continued neglect of the women and families who help the technology industry function on a day-to-day basis. Investors may be pouring millions into reproductive health, but when it comes to motherhood for the average Silicon Valley engineer or HR manager, her experience is likely to look quite different than that of a boutique IVF clinic customer.
Alas, perhaps companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple only wish to create the illusion that motherhood is even an option for their employees. Earlier this year, when Apple unveiled its futuristic new Cupertino campus, many couldn’t help but wonder how a $5 billion facility that boasts a 100,000-square-foot gym and an herb garden failed to incorporate a childcare center. Alas, Apple is not the only company worthy of this critique; neither Facebook nor Yahoo offers onsite childcare services. Google, one of the few companies that boasts its own daycare center, reportedly charges employees $57,000 a year to use the facilities — if you can make your way through the years-long waiting list, that is. While Silicon Valley wants its employees (and, let’s be honest, its women specifically) to believe that having a family is a right, the regulations, restrictions, and red tape prove that it’s more of a privilege than ever.
With women’s health care facing disastrous consequences on a governmental level, it’s easy to see how these technological alternatives can offer the quick boost of reproductive autonomy that so many women desire. But behind the cleverly designed graphics and slang-infused copy, Silicon Valley looks eerily similar to the Senate: a room of men debating how, when, and to what degree women have a say in their own health. With Silicon Valley’s claws digging deeper into every facet of our lives, we must either rediscover what true bodily autonomy looks like or risk losing it completely.