What the Quantified Self Movement Says and 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.

 

5 thoughts on “What the Quantified Self Movement Says and Tech and Gender

  1. Alexandra Carmichael

    hi david! i’m female, director of QS, and a self-tracker :) http://quantifiedself.com/2012/03/four-hacks-for-balancing-mood/ 
    the QS meetups i go to have about 20% women. 
    alex
    @accarmichael:twitter 

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Carmichael

    hi david! i’m female, director of QS, and a self-tracker :) http://quantifiedself.com/2012/03/four-hacks-for-balancing-mood/ 
    the QS meetups i go to have about 20% women. 
    alex
    @accarmichael:twitter 

    Reply
  3. Yasmin Lucero

    I am new to the QS movement (if not new to total geekery). I recently presented some detailed data I collected about caring for my newborn, and I could not have gotten a warmer reception. I was really surprised and impressed with how eager the community seemed to be to make room for this sort of thing: http://rpubs.com/yolio/1701

    Reply
  4. Kati Bicknell

    Hi David,

    Great post. :) I agree, I can’t think of a more important thing to track as part of the QS movement than menstrual cycle health.  Here’s a post I wrote for the Society of Menstrual Cycle Research http://menstruationresearch.org/2012/08/29/fertility-charting-is-the-way-of-the-future/

    There are many women charting their cycle, but not all of them think of this as a the new hip techie practice we refer to as the Quantified Self Movement.

    Reply
  5. Kati Bicknell

    Hi David,

    Great post. :) I agree, I can’t think of a more important thing to track as part of the QS movement than menstrual cycle health.  Here’s a post I wrote for the Society of Menstrual Cycle Research http://menstruationresearch.org/2012/08/29/fertility-charting-is-the-way-of-the-future/

    There are many women charting their cycle, but not all of them think of this as a the new hip techie practice we refer to as the Quantified Self Movement.

    Reply

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