Genderization of Wearable Technology

2014-01-10
Fitbit is supposed to encourage us to become more active. How does activity-tracking technology affect our daily lives? (Image retrieved from http://www.npccomic.com/comic/2014/01/10/if-a-tree-falls)

I asked my father for a Fitbit Surge on Christmas. I wanted something that would not only track my activity so that I could better log it on MyFitnessPal.com, but also something that would more accurately estimate calories burned via heart rate monitoring. Steps are not my main goal – in fact, I put my daily step goal to a paltry 5,000 steps every day. I sometimes go to 10k or 15k, but I try to be reasonable. Instead, I focus on the 30 minutes of activity I get at the gym daily, using my Fitbit to keep track of how much I burn. Did it work? Well, since January 1st, I have lost 17 pounds.

Was the Fitbit necessary for that loss? No, of course not. I could surely go to the gym without some plastic, over-priced piece of technology on my arm. But it’s more than a tracker. It’s a constant reminder. Instead of thinking, “Hm, I should probably go to the gym sometime,” you remember every time you glance down at your wrist to check the time.

For today’s blog post, let’s discuss gendered technology.

Argument: Wearable technology is marketed in accordance to gender roles. 

Evidence to Support My Argument: The marketing strategies of Fitbit and Google Glass. 

Let’s talk about gendered wearable technology, for a moment. When you consider the potential user of a Fitbit, what pops into your mind? I won’t speak for you, but I usually imagine a thin, white woman in her late 20s or early 30s. In fact, the huge majority of my friendslist on Fitbit–connected via Facebook–are all women. This is no mistake; the diet and exercise/weight loss industry (and yes, it is an industry, with businesses that rake in almost $6 billion in 2015) is specifically geared toward women.

Presuming you watch TV, consider the last diet commercial you watched. Perhaps it was something like “My Husband Ted,” wherein a wife complains that her husband stopped drinking soda and lost weight, while she didn’t. Consider any commercial that flashes images of their weight-loss champions. I would say that most of them are women, who say taglines like, “I lost three dress sizes!” or “I am the size I was in high school!” or even, “I feel sexy and desirable!” Perhaps even, “Please validate me, now that I have restricted myself for months so that I can be the size that every woman should be according to our patriarchal society! I hope you find me sexy now! PLEASE TELL ME I’M SEXY!”

Oh, excuse that last one. (Was that a little heavy handed? Perhaps…)

Let’s take a look at the Fitbit site. Perusing their images of customers provides you with many, many images of “fit” and “active” women, with maybe a few men sprinkled intermittently. By my count, there are 7 images of women, and 5 images of men. One of those images is a couple, and three of them don’t focus on their face (one is just a hand that I assumed was masculine, and another was a hairy pair of legs).

If you had the time to click through the gallery, perhaps you saw my favorite of these screenshots: Tory Burch for Fitbit. “Make fitness fashionable,” it urges you. The images with men mostly focus on being active, on setting goals (see: the Fitbit Surge image).  But fitness becomes an idea for women, an aesthetic. Athletic chic. Beautiful active wear and a Fitbit that fits in with your other accessories. The Fitbit becomes less a reminder to be active and track your progress, and more a fashion statement.

Let’s compare this with another famous wearable technology: the Google Glass. Try to imagine someone wearing Google glass. Are you having trouble coming up with something? Don’t worry, I can’t remember the last time I saw an actual breathing human being wearing one.

Oh wait, yes I do. Yesterday I got lunch at Noodles to Go by campus (the Thai Hot Pot is very good and I recommend it). There was a man there on a blind date. Three guesses as to his accessory of choice – and the first two don’t count.

Yes, he was wearing a Google Glass on his first date. An odd choice, to be sure. My husband and I shared amused looks, texting each other about whether or not we would date someone who wore Google Glass on a date.

Now, I did some thinking after I read the article on wearable technology last night, and realized I had never seen a woman wearing Google Glass. So I did a little digging, and found this article, “Google Glass’ Women Problems:”

Recently Google co-founder Sergey Brin took to the stage at the TED “Ideas Worth Spreading” conference. His idea worth spreading? That cellphones are “emasculating.” […] With one word Brin appears to have shot in the direction of both feet: both possibly alienating Google’s male Android smartphone customers and offputting women who might otherwise be in the market for Google Glass.

Taylor Burley investigates further into Google’s gendered marketing problem. He finds that in an analysis of the gender makeup of Google+ users who used the #ifihadaGoogleGlass hashtag, an alarming 86% of these users were most likely male, and 14% are female. The same hashtag on Twitter had a similar rate of 80% male, 20% female.

Perhaps the marketing itself isn’t to blame. Google might have seen the gender makeup of people responding to Google Glass technology and realized that they should appeal to the majority of their market – the men – by playing up the masculinity angle. Should they be blamed for this? Perhaps not. But if Google Glass is marketing itself as the technology of the future, then it shouldn’t simply focus on male potential buyers.

(Side note – before we get into evidence against my argument, I’m just going to show you the first result on Google when I typed in ‘women’s Google Glass’. It’s a video detailing a woman’s day by recording it via Glass. It doesn’t end well.)

Evidence Against my Argument: Marketing strategies of music-making wearable technology.

In one of the articles we read for class, the author mentions a Kickstarter for an amazing musical invention called the “Machina Midi.” It’s a jacket that a musician can wear to perform music by moving around and having present sounds for each movement. It’s a very cool concept, one that actually had me gasp in surprise at how awesome the opening video advertised the product.

I decided to look into more music-making wearable technology once I noticed that the jacket didn’t seem to be necessarily gendered. I found a post that listed many musical technologies, and perused their products. Each of these products are definitely worth checking out.

One thing I noticed is that there seemed to be a pretty good balance between the representation of male and female users. Imogen Heap, an amazing artist I’ve been a fan of for many years, markets her musical gloves, the MiMu. It doesn’t focus on the gender of the user. It instead focuses on the product that this technology creates: sound, music.

wearable-technology-1024x809
Even without gendering wearable technology, many wonder if wearable technology is too specific, too “out there”. (Image retrieved from davewalker.cc)

Discussion

Perhaps the gendered marketing of wearable technology depends on its purpose. If the technology is meant to supplement your daily lives – such as the Fitbit or GoogleGlass – then its marketing appeals to those who would already use it. For instance, marketing already implores women often take daily walks or strive to be active, so a Fitbit helps keep them on their goals. GoogleGlass, however, is more focused on the technology aspect, and technology innovations in general tend to be marketed toward men (as the popular idea is that men dominate the IT industry).

Wearable technology that is meant for full-day use is gendered just as our fashion is gendered. Fitbit has special bands to look like bracelets because the company understands that women probably won’t wear something all day if it’s ugly or sticks out and looks tacky with relation to the rest of their outfit.

However, musical wearable technology has a purpose. It is not meant for all-day use. It is focused on a product, a creation – whether it be songs or a light show. Why gender something that already has a specific market – musicians? It doesn’t make sense for that particular product.

Despite the fact that many wearable technologies consider themselves to be the products of the future, all these technologies are part of a business, and these businesses are driven by profit margins. As terrible as it may be, I doubt that gendered marketing of wearable technology will dissipate if it’s meant for daily use. If it’s what’s making money for these businesses, they’ll keep doing it until it no longer makes money. (Or, perhaps, take a bold shot by going against gender norms and making that their market by embracing LGBT marketing strategies – but “pink money” is an entirely different issue.)

Perhaps all this comes down on this idea that many companies might not understand the usefulness of their product. With wearable technology being put forth as the technology of tomorrow, more companies feel pressured to release it. Consider the AppleWatch, or any other smart watch. Why would we need a smart watch, when it doesn’t take that much effort to take your phone out of your pocket? Because it looks cool, mostly (which will refer you to aesthetics, which will put you right back at gendered marketing). In an interesting article, Mark Thomas implores businesses to critically consider what their technology actually brings to the table:

So, we’ve established that there are numerous devices with endless capabilities, but how does any of this truly have a positive impact on our lives? Carefully managed, these devices and the data they collect can give users greater power to detect and act upon many different aspects of their lives, from banking and finance through to home security and automation, and, in the health and wellbeing arena, from early health warnings through to customised fitness programmes tailored to the individual. I’m a keen follower of physics and chemistry, and can see that wearable tech has huge potential in detecting early signs of low blood-sugar levels, or reminding people to take medications based on signals from physiological sensors, as examples.

If businesses were to focus on the real benefits of wearable technology and how it might help the average person instead of how wearable technology plays into gendered fashion expectations, then we might get rid of this gendered marketing issue altogether. That, however, would require businesses to think more critically about what they really want their technology to do, rather than just look cool or sit pretty on your wrist.

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