Banana icons with condoms. A heavy focus on moods. Fetuses the size of grapes. Women have long had to deal with sexist features in health apps. A running joke for a while was that it’s not hard to spot a fertility-tracking app designed by a man. While these apps serve a simple function in theory—to track things—the story of how they came to be biased toward men’s interests is yet another that makes the underrepresentation of women in tech so apparent.
With pink floral backdrops and weight-tracking features in apps that congratulate users for losing weight, developers have made it clear what they think about women. A full year after Apple Health was launched, the company realized it had left out a key feature: a period tracker. Sexist health apps like Glow and Eve have not only failed to accommodate women in the various stages of our lives, but they have also caricatured women’s bodies and reinforced negative concepts about menstruation and pregnancy.
Women were tracking their cycles long before we could ever monitor and record our health with personal devices. As the researcher Whitney Boesel has told the writer Rose Eveleth in 2014, “So many regular facets of being a woman in a Western culture are highly likely to make one track.” Whether it’s calories or menstruation, they’ve kept track using paper, spreadsheets, online calendars, and now apps. And they keep track for a variety of reasons: to monitor any irregularities in their cycle, to know when to pack sanitary supplies, to plan important events, to help them conceive, and more.
But when menstrual- and fertility-tracking apps first hit the app stores, they were all lumped together with a narrow focus on pregnancy. The app Glow, launched in 2013, framed all of its users’ goals in terms of pregnancy, making users decide between whether they wanted to avoid pregnancy, attempt to conceive, or use fertility treatments.
When half of users reported they were using the app to avoid getting pregnant, the male founders, including PayPal entrepreneur Max Levchin, had to consider the idea that some people want to track their cycles simply to know how “normal”…