FemTech: Women’s Heath, or Women Surveillance?

Ovia Health says their product can minimize healthcare spending and help employers best plan for maternity leave, but what are the consequences of sharing such intimate data with an employer?

In 2019, The Washington Post [1] wrote an unflattering article on the pregnancy-tracking app Ovia Health. Offered as a corporate wellness tool, Ovia encourages female employees to divulge intimate details of their menstrual cycle, fertility, and pregnancy while employers monitor aggregate data at all stages of family planning. The company says their product can minimize healthcare spending and help employers best plan for maternity leave, but what are the consequences of sharing such intimate data with an employer?

I agree that the data this new technology takes from female employees is alarming. While it claims to empower and care for women’s health, the technology brings intimate information into a relationship with a large power differential and historic discrimination.

Intimate Data

Employers first began collecting “corporate wellness” data on employees to save money on health insurance through physical activity trackers like Fitbit. People complained about privacy at first, but then got used to it. Does privacy still matter, and is Ovia different from Fitbit?

Yes and yes.

First, privacy matters because of the huge power differential between an employee and an employer. Ovia is different from Fitbit because it gathers incredibly intimate information. The intimate nature of this information is what makes it extremely difficult to get, and very valuable. In any other context, it is unacceptable for someone to have power over another’s intimacy, and someone that does exert influence over an individual’s intimacy borders on harassment. Combining this large power differential and intimate information is especially disturbing.

Propagating historic discrimination

It’s well known that women are paid a fraction of what men are in the workplace. There has also been a long history of employer discrimination against women for pregnancy. Considering how these health matters have been used against women in the past, should this information, aggregate or otherwise, be directly available to an employer? Health care claims related to pregnancy, miscarriage, or abortion are processed via a third-party vendor to protect privacy, but aggregate data from a pregnancy app is available directly to HR personnel. There is no clinical or medical reason for HR personnel to access these data. Yet making it available to them could unintentionally be used to discriminate against female employees. What if the company is losing too much money on high-risk pregnancies? Will women over 35 (at higher risk) be considered riskier hires? Black women have much higher infant and maternal mortality rates. Will they, too, be less appealing to the HR department?

Moreover, Ovia is an opportunity to surveille more intimately – but only for half the population. Leveraging the anxiety a woman has about becoming pregnant, this app extracts incredibly intimate and valuable data from women, and women only. This does not mean we should even the playing field by collecting intimate data on men. I’m sure employers would love to know about male fertility factors including drug, tobacco, and alcohol use, depression, stress levels, and erectile dysfunction. But this intimate information should be protected from your employer no matter your gender.

We need to sound the alarm on “FemTech” that exploits such intimate information for purposes other than health.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/04/10/tracking-your-pregnancy-an-app-may-be-more-public-than-you-think/?arc404=true


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Student comments on FemTech: Women’s Heath, or Women Surveillance?

  1. So interesting! Completely agree that Ovia’s employer value-proposition is questionable. I’d be curious to understand how exactly the aggregate data is influencing HR policies and maternity leave planning. Could this be done by just interviewing people? I could also see female employees feeling pressure or a responsibility to participate in this program to influence and improve maternity policies (which we know are generally bad). This feels like a sticky trade-off — no one should feel obligated to provide intimate data in order to be sufficiently cared for by their employer.

  2. Brittany,

    Reflecting on this, I feel that having more technology, even with an aim to solve some basic challenges, would even make discrimination more prominent. This broke my heart as I am someone believing in using technology for making society better. I believe that having better technology gives us an ability to adjust and change things appropriately. However, your article proves to me somewhat wrong. We cannot adjust for a better outcome have we not solved biases, conscious or unconscious.

  3. Thank you Britanny, it was an interesting read! I can’t agree more with you. I think the information that Ovia is collecting is not just regular-health data, but it’s more of the employee’s life itself. Why would an employee reveal the critical life decisions, like pregnancy or abortion, to her employer?

  4. Reading your article from the perspective of a new parent with a working spouse, I’m torn between the desire to improve parental support and the power balance you mentioned. I also think the economics of this data collection is a weak argument. Even under idealistic conditions (where companies somehow exhibit no bias and use this solely for employee benefit), this data would could only allow minor improvements. Corporations are limited by their size and capacity. A small business can’t offer as generous parental leave as a large corporation no matter how much data it gleans from its employees. Reform is needed, and I agree that intrusive data collection is not the answer for a myriad of reasons.

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I agree with your sounding of the alarm here. I believe the proposition of allowing organizations to better support benefits like maternity leave is too weak of an argument against the potential for exacerbation of existing gender and age biases. Technology, especially when used by HR, surrounding female reproductive health encourages a narrow view of what it actually means to start a family today. Focusing on this kind of data can distract from supporting employees who might be using options like adoption or surrogacy. I also fear that making this sort of data tracking commonplace in the workplace will make for taking steps backward for gender equality by reducing female employees to their reproductive organs. Women are not just pairs of ovaries to be managed.

  6. Ahh I don’t know if I’ve ever been so uncomfortable / angry / distressed / $*#&!^$ about a piece of software! I second your concerns as well as the concerns that other classmates have raised in the comments.

    One other concern I have is the danger should employers learn that an employee is trying to get pregnant and struggling, since this could indicate that costly fertility treatments are around the corner. These expenses are relevant for male employees too, if their wife is on their employer-sponsored healthcare plan, but as you mentioned it would presumably only be women using the app and therefore only female employees potentially penalized in this scenario.

    So many problems!

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