Is building “for women” too controversial?
Dear reader, this one’s been brewing for a long time.
When I think about my experience building a technology company “for women” so far, I’m grateful for the many people who immediately understand why we’re designing a technology platform specifically for women. But, of course, there have also been many moments of skepticism along the way, and a shared sense of confusion from friends, investors, peers, and strangers who “just don’t get” the need for a platform like Diem to exist.
Frankly, I’m confused as to why they’re confused. So I keep asking myself — is building a product for women too controversial at this point? I don’t think so, but I do think a lot of this has to do with power. Power is valued because it provides access to tangible and intangible benefits in our society. When something is built intentionally to create more equality across power structures, it can feel like a threat to those who already hold power in our society (you know the type). Fear of losing power creates responses that are aimed at holding onto that power (and its benefits) at all costs.
Maybe it’s actually the word “woman” that’s at fault for all the controversy. Serious debate follows “woman” around, with many organizations rushing to adopt inclusive language and phrases like “bodies with vaginas” or “people with cervixes,” which then gets debated more. If you mention that you’re building for this specific group of people — also known as, a demographic — do you immediately put a target on your back? Any good marketer knows that defining a demographic is key to a product’s early success, and building “for women” is just that. Half of the population is not niche, and it’s absurd that we don’t acknowledge that more widely.
Ok, could the Girlboss era be to blame for ruining women-centric products? When women were Girlbosses, they were allowed to “rise” as business people until they were torn back down again a few years later. Was this a major reckoning in capitalism or was it just a large moment where we returned to seriously questioning the legitimacy of women in leadership positions? Of course, I wholeheartedly believe that we should be calling out abusive and inappropriate behavior, but it’s clear that we haven’t called out the abusive and inappropriate behavior that men in startup-land exhibit in equal measure. Instead, we now look at women in leadership positions more critically than ever, making it more common to critique and question any products they set out to build.
Ok, while we’re at it, here’s another thing I’ve observed. Women sometimes find it controversial to build for other women. We know that women can exhibit internalized misogyny, typically when they’ve gained status by dissociating with their gender. For example, research on “Queen Bee” behavior illustrates how women can act sexist as a way of responding to the sexism they feel. This plays out in many spaces, from women in leadership positions safeguarding their executive roles to female investors being more critical of female founders (yes, it happens). It makes sense — women are constantly operating with a scarcity mindset due to the historical tokenization of their roles in organizations. But I think this is all the more reason we need to build products that empower women to be completely themselves. If we don’t, who will?
If you’re a person in a position of power, and therefore privilege, there is literally no excuse to not bring people up with you. As my friend Melanie reminded me the other day, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The subconscious bias we all hold detracts from the most important point of all–we fundamentally need products designed differently. Why? We live in a world where women die 32% more after surgery than men, over 1 billion women are still unbanked, only 2% of VC funding goes to founders that are women (with Black women receiving just 0.3% of this), and 60% of women report sexual harassment on social or dating platforms.
With all of that said, I also don’t believe that building products “for women” is an altruistic endeavor, which is a narrative people are all too willing to assume. It’s a massive business opportunity. So if you catch yourself having a biased (sexist) reaction to companies building in this space (a space targeting half the population), I suggest you ask yourself what I now ask instead — “What can I do to help?”