For people who care about the tech industry’s gender gap, the wearable tech market is a source for hope and fear. Fear, because the female half of the population often gets overlooked as consumers–as when Apple’s HealthKit was designed for tracking all sorts of things in your body, but not your menstrual cycle–or as potential victims. One in four women experience stalking, and a hacked wearable does a stalker’s work for them.
The hope centers around a new wave of women-led companies. At the beginning of any emerging market, there’s an opportunity to sow the seeds of influence, says Dana Coester, creative director of the Reed College of Media Innovation Center at West Virginia University. Experts and executives agree the opportunity is particularly big with wearables. “In the hard sciences it’s rarer to see a female founder, but in the smaller, wearable space you see more female founders,” says Laura Michelle Berman, who co-created Melon, a headband that monitors brainwaves through electrical activity.
Google, PBS MediaShift, and WVU are collaborating to create the Hack the Gender Gap, a hackathon at WVU, and elsewhere, from October 24-26. “Women from a younger age think about what they’re putting on their bodies, and that translates into industrial design,” says Berman, who will be a part of a panel discussion with women in media and tech hosted by Google in Mountain View, Calif., as students participate remotely before a women-only hackathon begins.
Berman and fellow Pomona College cognitive science student Arye Barnehama started working on the concept for Melon in 2011 with a headband she sewed herself. “I think being a female in tech, it’s hard, but it’s not the hardest part about starting a company,” she says. “People respect my opinion about how the products look more as a female. In some ways, it’s worked to my advantage.”
Students looking for women leaders on the fashion-forward side of tech home in on Angela Ahrendts, who jumped from being CEO of Burberry to senior vice president of retail and online sales at Apple. Ahrendt, who started as a merchandiser at Donna Karan in New York, isn’t a geek, but she has a deep understanding of what technology can do for people. Under her direction, Burberry’s retail and digital presence synced together to create a stronger brand.
Mari Kussman, CEO of The Crated, a design consultancy that focuses on wearable tech product development, says the problem lies in dividing the consumer’s needs by gender, instead of as an individual.
“We could get more women at the table if we start valuing what a woman’s input means,” she stressed. “Yes, neurologically and physically women are different. We’re not catering to what someone does better.”
Kussman, who came from the fashion world, teamed up with Thiel Fellow Maddy Maxey to develop The Crated. She knows that a collaborative process is key to bringing a fresh point of view to the tech world.
“Smartphones aren’t gendered because everyone needs one, but websites are highly gendered, apps are highly gendered,” says Kussman. “What’s happening in the user experience of these things that draws more men than women, or vice versa? How can we make our products more inclusive?” Overall, Nielsen says wearable use is split 50-50 between men and women.
That’s why the WVU hackathon deliberately isn’t s a coding-specific event, because organizers wants students to realize that becoming an influencer, an inventor, a voice, or an entrepreneur in tech doesn’t have to begin from the often usual perspective of engineering or computer science.
A different kind of collaboration also requires a different kind of prize: The winning team will have a media platform to build an audience–their work will be featured in a series with MediaShift–and they’ll also have access to an intimate mentoring network with women leaders featured at the Google symposium.
Mark Glaser, the founder of PBS MediaShift, said he organized the event to focus on the fact that,“the levers of power have always been pretty male dominated. The CEO level, the C-Level, the VP level.” (In 2013, 13% of venture-backed companies had at least one female cofounder, according to a report from PitchBook.)
At a time when the country desperately needs more successful entrepreneurs, here’s hoping these young women succeed.