Data’s Gender Gap: What Data Goes Into the Products We Use?

What is data without research? And how else can we know we have good, usable data except besides knowing that we have conducted good, thorough research? In recent months, controversy has popped up across news channels regarding Thinx Underwear.

For those unfamiliar, Thinx is a company offering “washable, reusable underwear” that claims to look like standard undergarments and hold up to five feminine products worth of absorbency. The company practices inclusive sizing and start at $17 per pair, aiming to create an up-front cost much lower than the estimated $250 people who menstruate spend on period products per year. The company prides itself on being champions of the environment, advertising that their products are “organic, sustainable, and non-toxic.”

However, earlier this year, the brand settled a class action lawsuit regarding the use of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals” and PFAs, in their underwear. These substances are considered hazardous to both the wearers and the overall environment. PFA exposure leads to increased risk of cancers and liver damage among a variety of other illnesses.

According to NPR’s January report on the issue, “Thinx said in multiple places on its website that its underwear was rigorously tested and free of harmful chemicals, even claiming that the chemical compounds used in its anti-odor layer “stay on the surface of the underwear and don’t travel into your body.” Those claims […] vanished from its website around May 2021 […]” How did this happen? How did a company, earning tens of millions of dollars of revenue per year, get away with claiming that their products were safe and free of chemicals when that was pointedly not true? The company claims innocence, that they did not know about the presence of the chemicals and did not intentionally commit fraud.

This brings us to a question of research: What did Thinx need to do data-wise in order to make their specific claims, and why wasn’t that research thorough enough to catch the very present dangers of known cancer-causing chemicals in their products? In December 2022, The Economist published an article titled, Not Enough is Known About the Science of Pads and Tampons, which declares that menstrual products interact with  “one of the body surface’s most sensitive parts. It is more permeable than the rest of the epidermis and becomes still more absorbent when irritated.” Not only is it a massive oversight, but it is also downright dangerous to neglect  data collection on the effects of products regularly used by over half the population.

There is a well-known statistic that women make up 80% of consumers and hold much of the purchasing power in heterosexual households. And yet,  they make up a vast minority of executive level positions. According to the European Commission’s November 2021 report, while women increasingly complete higher levels of education than men, they are consistently under-represented in research work, including market research. If we want safe products for women , we must ensure that they are represented at all levels of research and production and are funded for their time and initiatives.

Beginning next quarter, this column will be going on hiatus  while I work on my own gender-related research for my graduate school thesis. The first edition was published over three years ago and I thank you for reading, listening, and learning. I encourage everyone to keep the gender and race data gaps in mind while planning and conducting initiatives in their lines of work.

Revisit my first column: Data’s Gender Gap is Killing Women

Read about data’s race gap:Data’s Gender Gap: Marginalized By Data Collection

For further reading: Data’s Gender Gap: A Data Equity Reading List

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Mandy Seiner

Mandy Seiner

Mandy Seiner is a writer and educator based in Brooklyn. She has a history of working with public schools, museums, and nonprofits. She is currently the Volunteer and Programs Manager at 826NYC.

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