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MIT Technology Review

Even Women’s Periods Are Not Immune to the Widening Tech Gap

More products than ever are giving women options for managing their periods—if they can afford to.

September 19, 2016

The latest advance in period technology, while signaling something good for feminist businesses, could actually be bad for women if the company behind it isn’t careful.

At this year’s Y Combinator Demo Day, the Flex Company made a pitch centered on a small, pliable disc designed to, as the Ringer put it, “disrupt periods,” by replacing the tampon with something less messy and more comfortable.

The disc looks like a rolled-up condom with a thicker, bendable edge to keep the device in place, and a loose reservoir basin to catch blood. It is made of a disposable medical-grade polymer that becomes more flexible when in contact with body heat, letting it conform to different body types and ensuring that the device completely covers the cervix and creates a leak-free seal. And it only needs to be changed every 12 hours. 

This all sounds like a huge improvement over soggy, leak-prone tampons, right? Well, sort of.

It is indeed a big step forward for a device that hasn’t changed much since it was invented in 1933. But in a sense it’s also a step backward in an area of public health already plagued by persistent inequality.

By one estimate, a woman living in the U.S. will spend about $18,000 keeping up with her period during her lifetime. Flex costs $20 a box right now, way more than a $7 box of tampons, which is already a price out of reach for many, even in the U.S. That doesn’t even consider problems of access and affordability in developing countries. In Uganda, for example, schoolgirls on average miss 11 percent of class time because they don’t have access to tampons or pads.

If Flex does nothing to help those issues, though, it is still part of the growing movement known as period feminism, which seeks to strip away the stigma associated with a natural cycle—something nearly half the world’s population deals with on a regular basis. Other new players in period feminism include apps that track a woman’s cycle and a line of ultra-absorbent underwear.

So seeing a souped-up tampon at Y Combinator, in the same league as virtual-reality headsets for airlines and autonomous drone security guards, sends a strong message. At the nexus of tech startups and venture capitalism—two large, male-dominated industries—feminist businesses are edging their way in. Only 4.2 percent of venture capitalists are women, but Flex has still managed to secure $1 million in funding.

Flex’s mission is a firm belief “that every woman should be able to choose what’s best for her own body. And that we deserve to have better options.” Armed with a legitimate improvement on an 80-year-old technology and money in the bank, the company now only needs to make good on the “every woman” part of its mission.