by Alexandra Boussommier-Calleja
As the founder of a company focusing on In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), I have repeatedly been told that ImVitro is a Femtech company, with what I believe to be very good intentions. I started receiving mixed signals as to why: sometimes, it seems to be because the company is founded and led by a woman; I suspect that more often, it is because infertility comes across as a topic that naturally interests women more.
So let’s get back to the basics: as a reminder, Femtech was coined in 2016 by Ida Tin, co-founder of menstrual health app Clue and refers to tech companies focused on the underserved area of female health. This label has undoubtedly increased awareness of an area that has lacked funding for too long. And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether it might have a negative impact when used to categorize IVF. It might feel like it’s just semantics. But words matter. They shape our life, and the journey of patients, who are at the very heart of ImVitro’s work.
The main risk in describing a company as being femtech without using any other label is that it suggests that it mostly caters to women’s needs. You probably already see where I am going with this, but I’ll still walk you through the reasoning. What is IVF? It’s a technology that helps patients become parents. Parents can be both women and men (cf. disclaimer). And while yes, having a uterus has been so far one of the key ingredients to having children, men have also been known to produce another key ingredient. I’d therefore argue that it’s not only an area of female health.
So what is the risk in associating IVF and femtech too strongly?
- It can suggest that infertility concerns women more than men. This would be wrong. Generally, it is said that infertility concerns men in one third of couples, women in another third, and is of unknown origin or synergistic in the rest. Infertility is also a burden on the rise for men: over the past 40 years, sperm counts worldwide have halved and sperm quality has declined, with 1 in 20 men currently facing reduced fertility. Also, what about heterosexual couples who go through IVF when the man is infertile, do they see IVF as a technology that helps the woman who could have naturally conceived with another partner?
- It could suggest that becoming a parent matters more to women. I acknowledge that parenthood is a deeply personal experience, and that a myriad of factors, including cultural, religious or financial elements play a huge role in how you approach it. But in 2022, becoming a parent should not, in theory (that is, if you are at capacity to bypass socio-economical pressure), be necessarily more important to women than men. Anyone should feel ok with wanting or not wanting children, regardless of their gender. To imply that a woman’s life is defined more largely by their ability to procreate compared to that of a man can have huge implications on the unequal way women sometimes bear the brunt of infertility, especially in some cultures (Grey D. J. R.).
- It could suggest that families necessarily revolve around women. IVF and other reproductive technologies are reshaping how we see families: what about homosexual men who want kids? Would they see IVF as femtech?
That being said, IVF is not equal towards men and women
It is the medicalized definition of IVF that genders the issue because it is much more invasive to women in several ways (Davis G. & Loughran T). This is first because retrieving eggs is much more invasive and painful than retrieving sperm; and this comes after a painful hormonal stimulation that women have to go through. Second, IVF is inherently unequal, because women bear children, not men. Women host the embryos, and thus physically go through embryo transfers and potential miscarriages. So making IVF easier will generate obvious benefits for women. Finally, women do, as of today, have a somewhat shorter reproductive window that might urge some into planning more carefully for parenthood if they did want to become mothers (then again, the average age of first-time fathers in the US seems to be 31).
And yet, I don’t think any of this means the desire of parenthood should be seen as asymmetric.
At the end of the day, ImVitro is here to help anyone who wants an easier path to parenthood. I only want to make sure that neither I, or ImVitro, are entrenching the potential and silent status quo that women should care more about dealing with infertility or becoming a parent.
Reassuringly, we do see amazing startups in the IVF space founded by men (👋Hello Nader from Gaia!), or backed by male investors, sending a clear signal that it deeply matters also to men. So let’s not forget the many men who want children, or those who are struggling with their infertility. Let’s also remember that anyone, regardless of their gender, and regardless of whether they want children of their own, might feel concerned about a technology that helps others become parents.
After all, IVF is here to stay and to play a huge part in our collective reproductive future, as a species
In a nutshell, I’d strongly suggest we do not genderize reproductive technologies such as IVF:
- either you specify that they are both femtech and mantech (if that exists),
- or, more simply, call it famtech, i.e. a technology that helps families
For the purpose of this post, women and men are considered as people who have female or male reproductive organs, respectively.
Readings & References:
“The palgrave handbook of infertility in history”, edited by Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran has been a great source of inspiration, and is a great deep dive into the history of infertility.
Grey D.J.R “She get the taunts and bears the blame”: infertility in contemporary India, from “The palgrave handbook of infertility in history”, edited by Davis G and Loughran T.
Hagai Levine, Niels Jørgensen, Anderson Martino-Andrade, Jaime Mendiola, Dan Weksler-Derri, Irina Mindlis, Rachel Pinotti, Shanna H Swan, Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis, Human Reproduction Update, Volume 23, Issue 6, November-December 2017, Pages 646–659, https://doi.org/10.1093/humupd/dmx022
QUOCTRUNG BUI and CLAIRE CAIN MILLER AUG. The Age That Women Have Babies: How a Gap Divides America. The New York Times. Aug 4, 2018.