Marija Butkovic and Michelle Hua

What women want from wearable technology

A male-dominated workforce in the wearable technology market is isolating female consumers. A new organisation is striving to bridge this gap by encouraging female designers to unite and become the Women of Wearables.

It’s no secret that careers in engineering and technology-related disciplines tend to have a male-focused workforce. In the case of wearable technology, this not only reflects an under-representation of women in the workplace, but it can also lead to the creation of devices which are inherently more male-focused.

In the last few years the wearables market in the UK has witnessed unprecedented growth, with a recent study from YouGov highlighting that the number of people who own a wearable device has risen from just two per cent to 17 per cent since the summer of 2014. There are plenty of fitness trackers on the market now, but there is still no hiding from the fact that many of these devices are created by men for men.

Marija Butkovic is the co-founder of Women of Wearables, an organisation that is attempting to connect women working in the technology sector. She has spoken at length about the lack of women in the wearables market and how an over-saturation of male mindsets in the design process is inevitably isolating female consumers.

“Very often men manage wearable tech teams and then go on to hire male designers and developers who develop technology that most appeals to their gender,” Butkovic wrote last year. “This results in a large proportion of wearables appealing only to men, not women, which fails to address a huge chunk of potential wearable tech customers.”

Troubled by the lack of women and diverse teams in the wearable tech space, Butkovic founded Women of Wearables with co-founder Michelle Hua after meeting at the Wearable Technology Show in 2016. Together they made a plan to help inspire, support and connect women with an interest in wearable and fashion technology, IoT and augmented and virtual reality.

In the last year the organisation has grown into a community of more than 6,000 individuals worldwide and has been collaborating with many industry partners, accelerators, conference organisers and STEM organisations.

“I think the main problem is that when men design a product they don’t often include women in their teams. This results in a greater focus on the products’ ‘big data’ and tech features rather than the aesthetics,” says Butkovic. “This is precisely why wearable products today are very clunky and not very appealing to women. They are too visible as tech products rather than fashionable wearable products that fit into our everyday life and style,” she says.

From Butkovic’s perspective, every company developing wearables should endeavour to employ at least one female designer to help add a different perspective, and more adequately address the needs of female consumers.

“Women understand other women’s problems and needs,” she says. “If I know what problems I am facing as a woman I will be able to better design and develop a product that responds to the same problems in other women.”

Hua and Butkovic, both lawyers by profession, are relatively new to the wearables sector, although each was involved with her own wearable technology product before they teamed up to found Women of Wearables.

Hua founded Made With Glove, a prototype connected fashion brand designing stylish heated gloves for women, while Butkovic is one of the founders behind the Kisha Smart Umbrella, a 100 per cent wind and corrosion-proof connected umbrella that lets you know when you have left it behind.

These two rather distinct products have one thing in common – they were both created as solutions to existing problems and use as a starting point products that are already widely used. Designing products in this way, Hua says, is more likely to appeal to those female consumers who are concerned with how their image reflects who they are.

“If you think about clothing, you choose certain clothes based on your personality and your sense of style, so any kind of wearable is an extension of that,” says Hua. “As soon as you put something on your body it becomes a part of you and what you want to project into the world about what you are. It has to look a certain way for you to be drawn to it.

“I think it is important to take something that people already wear and turn that into a tech product so you are not making people wear something that they are not used to wearing or using,” she says. “With my gloves women are already wearing gloves and more women suffer from cold hands than men – it’s just it does something a little bit different.”

Hua and Butkovic are not alone in their endeavour to create more appealing designs which reflect the needs and aspirations of women. In fact, there are a large number of female founders who are developing products, but unfortunately they struggle to attract the same attention as the more mainstream brands.

“This is one of the key problems in this industry,” says Butkovic. “When we started Women of Wearables we discovered that there are actually a lot of women designing wearable products for women, it’s just that they don’t get the visibility that they need.

“We are trying to help women achieve this visibility by providing them with help and advice that we didn’t have. When I started my business there wasn’t a single wearable tech accelerator, incubator or mentorship that could help me,” she says. “Our goal is to build the world’s largest community of women – and men – in the wearable tech space to help businesses in this niche grow.”

As an organisation, Women of Wearables does more than just connect those working within wearable technology. The organisation also strives to inspire young girls to take an interest in technology by running creative workshops where children can create their own wearable products, including light-up connected bracelets.

“Wearable technology is a great opportunity to get more girls involved, because it mixes tech with a bit of design, creativity and art. You see a lot of girls take art because they want to be creative; they like to get their creative juices flowing,” says Hua.

“In our basic workshops we show kids how to make a circuit bracelet using conductive thread and an LED. The bracelet closes using a popper which acts as a switch to make the LED light up,” she says. “Essentially, it is an introduction to circuitry, but they don’t realise that they are building a circuit, they just want to make the bracelet light up, but they are actually learning about electronics.

“Our intermediate and advanced workshops involve coding and, while we educate kids in the cities that we live in, we also want to make our workshops available online. Because kids should have access to education regardless of their location.

“Wearable tech is such a new industry that it’s important to show people how they can be involved. But we also want to inspire more girls to choose STEM subjects, because the gender imbalance in tech is just ridiculous.”

For Women of Wearables, addressing the gender imbalance in STEM is part and parcel of making the wearables market more representative of women’s needs. “In many cases children think that technology is only something that you connect with coding and sitting in front of a laptop, but it is more than that,” says Butkovic. “It needs to be more creative and tangible for girls, and that is what we are trying to change and achieve.”

Website: www.womenofwearables.com

 Twitter: @Women_Wearables @MarijaButkovic @GetKisha @MadewithGlove

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