Tokyo Olympics, Femtech Investing Signal Progress On Gender Parity

Illustration of woman at work.

By Michael Proman

Amid Tokyo’s current state of emergency, preparations for the postponed 2020 Olympic Games continue to suffer setbacks and controversy mere weeks away from the scheduled opening ceremony. The disappointments may not come as much of a surprise as our pandemic-weary world struggles to emerge from a period that has gone just about as smoothly.

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Consider the recent back-to-back sexism scandals, with the Games’ creative chief body shaming one woman, and the ex-head of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee publicly complaining that women in general “talk too much.”

Add to that the fact that female political empowerment and corporate leaders are still rarities for many countries; women everywhere have borne the brunt of job loss during COVID-19; and the most recent World Economic Forum report estimates that it will still take at least another century before gender parity gaps may close throughout much of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia and the Pacific.

But despite all these imbalances (epitomized most recently by the image of the women’s workout facilities at the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio), and no matter how the medal tally may end up, I’m convinced that gender parity is already the Olympic darling for this Games.

As someone who works with early-stage startups across many verticals, I feel fortunate to have a role in helping entrepreneurs solve large-scale problems.

For me, this has meant helping to propel visionary ideas in such compelling industries as smart cities and sportstech. And in much the same way I view sports as a force for swaying social change, I see the emerging femtech industry—which brings software and tech startups together to address women-specific needs—as a much-needed equalizer. The trend bodes especially well for countries like Japan where long-standing challenges with gender equality persist.

Michael Proman heads Scrum’s SPORTS TECH TOKYO program.

The numbers aren’t pretty but Japan isn’t alone — especially among some of the most powerful global nations, in which regional neighbors like Korea and China also under-index.

More than 70 percent of Japan’s firms lack any managerial-level women, and fewer than 4 percent of publicly traded Japanese corporate executives are women, according to a Reuters Corporate Survey published in October 2020. Japan ranked lowest among G-7 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, coming in at 120th place out of 156 nations. For context, this puts the world’s third-largest economy just ahead of Sierra Leone and Guatemala.

As my 10-year-old daughter would say, “That’s not a good look.”

Fortunately, change is coming. Seven-time Olympian Seiko Hashimoto (also a pioneering politician and mother of six) was unanimously appointed to take over as head of this year’s Games after the fallout following her predecessor’s denigrating remarks.

“The world is watching and the Organizing Committee itself has to move fast on gender equality, diversity and inclusion so it will lead to government and societal reform,” she said. “I see this as an opportunity to change unconscious bias to change the mindset of the entire nation.”

There is now greater public discourse around women’s rights. To boot, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is on track for a new record—an unprecedented nearly equal number of female and male athletes. And the IOC is committed to reaching full gender parity for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The Games are already helping to shine a light on issues such as increased government subsidies for fertility treatment.

Corporate femtech divisions are springing up at places like Marubeni and casual apparel maker Fast Retailing while CVS Health is launching a dedicated fund and Merck recently spun out a new company, Organon, to reinforce the company’s vision and focus on women’s health.

Global FemTech Market

In 2020, according to CB Insights, the global femtech market attracted more than $1.68 billion in new funding. This new capital is chasing what experts predict will be a $50 billion industry by 2025.

And we’re not just talking about traditional personal care and reproductive health, which account for a majority of the market. The definition of femtech has expanded to include STEM and educational resources as well as female-specific content platforms designed to connect with and empower the next generation of female leaders on and off the playing field.

Startups that have recently secured growth capital like Just Women Sports, The GIST and Freeda Media along with the recent IPOs of female-first companies like Progyny and Bumble and the recent acquisition of Modern Fertility by Ro, the parent company of Roman, reinforce a growing trend: the appetite for femtech is real and just getting started.

The growth, and ultimately the success, of the overall femtech industry correlates directly to gender equity and can be viewed as a bellwether for the pace of progress. While many would argue that recent growth rates reflect how underserved this space has been, nobody should be satisfied with the recent surge in growth; rather, we should see this as a torch being lit — signifying the start of something much bigger than one event.

Michael Proman is a Managing Director at Scrum Ventures and heads the firm’s SPORTS TECH TOKYO program. Proman worked in global marketing and development capacities at Coca-Cola and the National Basketball Association prior to starting (and ultimately exiting) his initial startup, OptionIt. Through additional roles in the early-stage space, he helped lead multiple startups to acquisitions and continues to play an active role in mentoring and advising founders across multiple industries. Michael is a graduate of Amherst College and makes his home in Minneapolis.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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