The Internet of Things needs more women, but do women need this IoST?

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We need more women in IoT for many reasons – a big one being that men apparently have no idea how to design IoT apps that take women’s needs into account – and when they try, the results can be silly, writes Teresa Cottam.

I confess to being a professional sceptic. It’s my job. I’ve spent a career pouring cold water on other people’s great ideas and bluntly explaining why their pet project is doomed. But it never ceases to amaze me how many times I’ve had to point out the obvious to a bunch of clever men.

A few years back I was asked to assess a very clever romper suit that monitored baby’s vitals.

“What do you think?” asked the VC.

“Will it wash?” I replied.

Apparently not. Back to the design board.

Last summer I had a pretty intense argument with a fellow analyst who insisted Amazon’s new service to let itself into your home to deliver your parcels was an excellent idea. As a man, he was intrigued by the technology; as a woman I was scared witless over the security and privacy issues. “No one needs a delivery that badly,” I remember saying.

Practicality is just one reason why we need more women in IoT (and every other area of technology). Women are also generally more safety- and privacy-conscious than the average man, and this changes both their acceptance of technology and their buying behaviors. A cool idea for a man can be a creepy idea for a woman.

We already know that criminals and stalkers can hijack smart objects to spy on women inside their homes. But a new aspect of this risk was recently pointed out by The New York Times, which reports that men are now using IoT devices to harass former partners, adding a chilling new dimension to domestic abuse. Victims describe doorbells ringing for no reason, central heating systems or air conditioning systems being switched on and off, and even codes to devices such as digital locks being changed daily. Mostly the victims are women and the perpetrators men. Why? Because these devices are usually bought and installed by men who know the passwords.

Partly in response to this story, University College London has now produced a resource list to help people regain control from abusive partners who are using IoT devices to harass them.

For all of these reasons, we urgently need more women in IoT so that their needs and perspectives are taken into account, and we need technology companies to engage with women when developing their ideas. 

‘Smart’ objects that aren’t so smart for women

  1. The internet-connected bra. Invented by Scott Fan of Singapore. The idea is that the bra will send a signal to the police station if the wearer’s heart rate rises. Dear Mr Fan, I know you have our best interests at heart, but did the following occur to you: 1. Will it wash? 2. There are many reasons a woman’s heartbeat will go up other than assault 3. Why would I wear this in my bra and not just have this as an app in my fitness tracker (which already monitors my heart rate)?
  2. A not-so smart hairbrush. Thanks L’Oreal, but life is really too short for me to worry about how I brush my hair, and I have better things to spend $200 on. Most women are grateful they manage to brush their hair at all, considering how busy we are.
  3. A vibrating fork that tells me I’m eating too fast? Nah, I’ll save $49 (normal price $99) thanks. Sometimes I like to live by the seat of my pants and gobble down my broccoli extra fast just for the hell of it. A definite candidate for the Internet of Silly Things (IoST).
  4. Amazon Dash– just … no. I need nothing so badly I’m going to pay £4.99 to make it easier to order. The idea of covering my house with them just makes me cringe at the thought of all that extra dusting. Never mind the toddlers and crazy cats that could have a wild time pushing them just because they can.

Teresa CottamWritten by Teresa Cottam, chief strategist with industry analysts and strategy consultants Omnisperience

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