, ,

What the Quantified Self Movement Says About Tech and Gender

Over the past year or two I’ve been to a couple of unconferences sessions about how people are increasingly measuring different parts of their lives: how far they run, how they sleep, what they eat, etc… As some readers may be aware, these efforts are often referred to as part of the “Quantified Self Movement.” For those readers less aware (and curious), you can watch Wired Magazine editor and quantified movement originator Gary Wolf give a brief overview in this 6 minute TED talk.

All of this sounds very geeky I’m sure. And as a general data geek and avid fitbit user I am – I suppose – part of the quantified self movement myself.

Reflecting on these (few) experiences with the movement, I find it interesting that almost every session I’ve been to has been almost entirely populated by men. I’m open to the possibility that I’ve simply been to the wrong conferences or the wrong sessions, but I’m not sure that is the case. Even looking at the quantified self Wikipedia page, virtually all the gadgets referred to deal with fitness and sleep. Obviously these are not things that men exclusively care about, but they are notable because of what is absent.

Humans have, of course, probably been quantifying themselves for as long as we’ve been around. But when I think of a group of people that have been engaged in quantifying themselves in a meaningful way,for well over a millennia,it is women.

More specifically, it is women measuring their menstrual cycles. I mean as important as losing a few pounds or getting a good nights sleep may be (and it is important to me), I’m pretty sure the stakes are much lower than preventing, or trying to get, pregnancy (now that’s a life changing event!). Indeed, given that it is hard to imagine most men having any pressing needs to measure much about their bodies on a regular basis a thousand years ago, it think it would be safe to argue that women were societies first quantified selfers.

And yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen this activity discussed, looked to as a model, or engaged in by the quantified self movement. Lauren Bacon has a great post on her own experience measuring her menstrual cycle as part of her quantified self but it is pretty rare to see women adopt that language. Given that women have been measuring their periods for years, and that there is likely a strong oral and written history to look into around this, I’d think this was a line of research or inquiry that the movement would be interested at looking into. Doubly so since it would give us a window into what a community of quantified selfers looks like, especially when its activities have been more normalized (as during some parts of our history) and marginalized (during other parts).

This all feels like a lost opportunity, and the kind of thing that happens when there are too many men and not enough women in a conversation. You want to talk about the consequences of not having women in tech – this strikes me as a great example. A rich and important history is not (sufficiently) reflected in the conversation and so important lessons and practices are potentially missed.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe women have been part of the quantified self movement from the beginning and that this is not a larger reflection of the challenges we face when the ratio of men and women in an industry is out of whack. But my sense is that this is actually a very nice, and potentially wonderfully quantifiable, case study around the issues of women in tech.

Original post

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Hannah Ornell

I’m surprised that women are considered left out of the conversation of the Quantified Self Movement. How are you determining who is part of the movement and who isn’t?

I think calorie counting is another example of how women have embraced quantifying themselves. With dozens of fad diets constantly cropping up, it seems many women are always finding new ways to quantify their food consumption. From someone looking in to the tech scene from the outside, it looks to me like women are very much involved in self-quantifying.

Anna Abbey

It seems to me that the users of technology to measure elements of their life and the attendees at conferences about these technologies are not the same. I myself use a number of apps that measure a number of things for a number of reasons, but never imagined there were conference sessions about the movement…and can’t muster up any desire to go to one.

Dale M. Posthumus

As a man, I would suggest that, maybe, men prefer the larger, more formal forum for this. Women may prefer more informal, smaller, groups where people know each other better. I would also suggest that women may be more open to discussing intimate, personal issues than men. Not better or worse, just different. I would agree people have been self-measuring for a long time, using available technology. Just a thought.

Cat Robinson

Hannah, I think David (correct me if I am wrong) is bringing up the point that:

menstrual cycles are not brought up in the Quantified Self movement (and it seems like an obvious go-to), not that women themselves are absent from it altogether.

This brings up two more overarching points:

1. Women, and men alike, stigmatize talking about cycles.

2. Women are the minority in the tech scene.

Thanks David, this has inspired me to write a blog on minorities in tech.

Mindy Giberstone

I agree that it does depend on what you are using as examples of quantified data. Counting fat, carbs or calories certainly is widely done. And women are more likely not to discuss menstruation in a mixed setting, less you get labeled as having PMS or some other pejorative.

But as a baseball fan, I am always amazed at the level of statistical detail many men retain. My enjoyment of watching a game does not usually include stats (esp historical data) and my male coworkers can pull ERAs, slugging percentages, # of no-hitters, etc without effort. I think these numbers are truly associated with their enjoyment of baseball. Maybe its what is identified as meaningful when introduced to the game as a child? And once stats are meaningful, they get extended to the rest of men’s lives?

I’m old enough that I wasn’t expected to be interested in sports or stats as a girl and so I wasn’t indoctrinated. But that doesn’t really account for post Title 9 girls and women.

Diana Cleland

Actually, I think he IS saying that not many women are involved in this movement; and I’m not really surprised.

I hate to sound sexist, but I think most women have been quantified by themselves (and by others) way more than we care for. Most women I know would prefer to quantified themselves less. We do plenty of self quantifying, I think we just don’t see any benefit in sharing all that internalized data. It doesn’t sound fun.

Maybe I’m totally missing the idea behind the quantified self movement; but I try really hard to not see myself as a collection of facts and data.