By Danielle Keiser, Milena Bacalja Perianes and Marianne Liyayi for the MH Hub
If periods are such a natural part of being a human female, why have we been socialized to be ashamed of our own bleeding vaginas and hide any trace of our menstrual experience? #PinkyGate
Period shame and the menstrual taboo exists everywhere around the world. From the moment that girls reach menarche, they are taught to hide their monthly flow, internalize shame, and oftentimes come to fear and loathe the very blood that signals their health and wellbeing. Period blood is just that — a vital sign of a functioning, regular and healthy female reproductive cycle. Yet, over their lifetime, women* are taught to internalise period shame, stigma, and taboo because society has taught them that their period and their vaginas are inherently dirty and unclean.
It is because of this ingrained shame that products like Pinky Gloves are invented.
Eugen Raimkulow and Andre Ritterswürden, leveraged this shame and disgust to start their business Pinky Gloves , a German start-up that makes single-use pink plastic gloves for women to use to touch their vaginas and dispose of used menstrual products. Last week, the duo were selected to pitch their idea on primetime TV on the German version of Shark Tank, Die Höhle der Löwen, and ended up striking a deal with the male investor Ralf Dümmel who agreed to invest 30,000 Euros into Pinky Gloves. From Germans and internationals alike, everything about the Pinky Gloves story sparked outrage. But why?
Unpacking the problematics of Pinky Gloves
1. There is nothing innovative about a plastic glove
The ‘invention’ itself is literally just a PINK, PLASTIC, DISPOSABLE GLOVE. If people who menstruate wanted to, they could have used any other plastic glove already on the market to remove their tampon and dispose of it without having to touch their own vaginas. Those already available are cheaper, more accessible and less likely to include the chemicals required to make them pink. Using pink as a marketing strategy is problematic and frankly idiotic because companies literally turn a normal product pink and then add a premium to it to market to women. Surprise, surprise, not all women want pink products and they definitely don’t want to pay extra for it.
2. Menstrual blood is not dangerous or toxic
Contrary to Dr. Bela Schick’s debunked menotoxin theory, menstrual blood is by no way dangerous to touch or handle. Again, a vital sign of good reproductive health, menstrual blood is the body’s natural way of getting rid of blood and tissue it doesn’t need anymore since it did not become pregnant that month. Pinky Gloves’ assumption that menstruation is dirty and needs to be cleaned up is not based on evidence. It is based on Raimkulow and Ritterswürden’s own anecdotal experiences of seeing the discarded tampons of their former female flatmate in the communal bathroom trash bin.
3. Design for real needs
Many German women who responded to this controversy have been asking where the demand for such a product really came from. Are women really craving something like Pinky Gloves to handle their menstrual waste? Is this truly the greatest unmet need around menstrual or female health? Or do these products just reinforce that our periods are major problems that need to be sanitized and cleaned up — even when already in the trash bin?
We wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that no menstruator would ever want or use this product, but do they actually ever need it? The German newspaper Die Zeit put together a great list of other uses for Pinky Gloves with our favourites including using them to bring puppies into the world, collect earthworms for fishing, or if you really don’t want to give up shaking hands in Corona times, use Pinky Gloves.
4. Know your bloody market
There are a variety of period products on the market, and based on the country and other socio-cultural factors, there are great insights available about menstrual product uptake. Interesting to note is the difference between countries with high tampon-applicator preference vs non-applicator preferences (see the photo below).
Countries with more stigma and taboo around sex and menstruation usually have a higher uptake of applicator tampons. Germany is not one of them. The German menstrual product market is dominated by non-applicator tampons. One could interpret this as the perfect market to introduce Pinky Gloves — but, that would be incorrect.
Consumer insights and women’s health behaviour reveal that with tampon use being so high in the country (and menstrual cup intake on the rise), the average German woman is totally fine with touching her own vagina with her bare fingers. A simple market analysis would have shown Pinky Gloves that Germany is actually not the right market for this product (and we hope nowhere is).
5. Enough with the plastic waste
Each single-used plastic Pinky Glove is wrapped in even more single-use plastic. It is widely known that single-use plastics majorly contribute to the degradation of human and environmental health, as they break down into microplastics and or remain unrecycleable for decades. On average, single-use menstrual products generate approximately 590,000 tonnes of waste annually in the EU. They are also among the most commonly found single-use plastic in the marine environment.
As Germany shifts to reduce plastic waste, creating a single-use plastic product is therefore not only unsustainable but completely tone deaf in a context where the consumer and political environment is calling for more biodegradable, green or resource-efficient solutions.
6. High cost per product
Looking at the price, each Pinky Glove costs 0,25€ (30 cents USD), or 11,96€ for 48. In contrast, the average tampon costs 0,16€ in Germany. The company is effectively selling an additional product to the actual solution at 0,09€ more per individual product. This, to conceal menstrual blood rather than actually absorb it!
7. Scheiß (shit) marketing
We could be more diplomatic but why should we? From the marketing and branding angle, this is truly a divisive and exclusive product. As previously mentioned, pink marketing is usually a way to further tax women because of their gender. However, in addition, Pinky Gloves are marketed just to women — even though not all those who menstruate are women.
Using pink rose petals and images of women’s asses in tight jeans can alienate many consumers across the gender continuum. Furthermore, women don’t menstruate from their asses. The repeated use of photos of women’s backsides does nothing to advance the product rather further demonstrates how removed these two founders are from their customer base.
To clap back at the utter ridiculousness of this marketing and message, a spoof product emerged immediately in the wake of #PinkyGate called Bluey Gloves, made for the clean and discrete holding of the penis while urinating.
The use of Pinky’s tagline “hygienically and discreetly take care of your menstrual hygiene on the go” echoes the stigmatizing campaigns of yesteryear, including this fishy french ad from Tampax.
Unpacking the problematics of the investment in Pinky Gloves
For context, in November 2019, investors on Die Höhle der Löwen questioned the legitimacy and market potential of Ooshi (now Ooia), a Berlin-based, female-founded company producing high-quality period underwear. Period panties are an innovative solution that have proven market returns in the US and Canada by e-commerce brands such as Thinx and Aisle. On Die Höhle der Löwen, Ooshi’s products were met with skepticism. Only one investor — a female named Judith Willlaims — offered 300,000 Euros in exchange for 30% equity. Ooshi tried to negotiate to 10% and Williams refused to make a deal.
According to TechCrunch less than 3% of all Venture Capital (VC) investment went to women-led companies in 2019, and only one-fifth of U.S. VC went to startups with at least one woman on the founder team. In Germany, women’s teams are significantly less likely to receive large amounts of funding.
According to Female Founders Monitor, to date only 5.2% of female-led teams have received one million euros or more — compared to 27.8% of male-founded teams — creating an enormous gap between aspiration and reality among female-founded teams.
This is astonishing when you see just how many great Femtech innovations have emerged over the last few years and how little economic support and trust the market has actually provided to enable those products and services to succeed.
From our own experiences and those of other female founders we know who have pitched menstrual-related businesses, a lot of really absurd questions have been asked. “Well, how big is the market, really?” “How many tampons can a woman actually use each period?” “How does a woman go to the toilet using the product?”
To answer these questions, once and for all:
It is massive. There are an estimated 2.2 billion women of reproductive age on earth with a functioning menstrual cycle. The average woman has 450 periods over the course of her life. Added up, this equates to around 10 years — or about 3,500 days — spent menstruating. If the average woman uses 14 products per cycle, she spends 1500 Euros over her lifetime on period products. Does this sound like a lot? Calculate how much your own period will cost you!
Menstruation is a consistent, recurring experience and with every generation that finishes menstruating, another generation begins.
As of 2021, the total Femtech market is estimated to be worth 1.073 trillion dollars, with hundreds of amazing female-founded companies emerging every single day. With a growing population, rising middle class, and women’s annual consumer spending is worth $20 trillion (this number is from 2009 and has risen exponentially) , we are pretty convinced it is worth the investment.
In the last 10 years, there has been incredible progress all across the world to break the silence around menstruation. From May 28 being internationally recognized as Menstrual Health Day, to the eons of news stories about how communities and governments are working to reduce menstrual inequity through progressive legislation and education, real progress has been made to make menstruation matter and destigmatize periods.
Sadly, Ralf Dümmer’s enthusiastic but tone-deaf investment is a sad reminder of all the work that still needs to be done to educate investors and men in positions of power about whose problems are actually being addressed.
Why does this matter? The ease in which Raimkulow and Ritterswürden were able to get money for their absurd innovation is the crux of the problem in accelerating the women’s health markets more broadly.
The comparison between Pinky Gloves and Ooshi demonstrates that female founders are held to different standards than their male counterparts with their innovations and businesses held to greater scrutiny.
This disparity gets wider when we look at other founders representing minority groups who pitch brilliant businesses and are systematically ignored or minimized throughout the investment process.
This is not to say that one has to always represent the group you are designing for, but any woman on the street could have told Raimkulow and Ritterswürden that Pinky Gloves were a bad idea.
It is critical that investors do more to question their own internal bias to help close the financial gap for founders, and to build better products and services that meet the diverse needs all people. Whether you are motivated by profit or impact- know your audience!
What can be done, marching forward
In addition to increasing investor education, we need innovative solutions that seek to address women’s actual pain points and unmet needs. Great products usually solve critical problems, and it’s unclear what and whose ‘problem’ Pinky Gloves were really trying to solve.
In an apology statement the company has since announced that Pinky Gloves will be taken off the market. This decision hopefully reflects a crucial learning curve in understanding how to innovate for and with women, but also how investors think about and participate in the women’s health market opportunity and who they support to enable that to happen.
With Pinky Gloves, we’ve seen an incredible phenomenon take place: Consumer pressure in response to bad products and businesses has actually led to a company deciding to call it quits. The activism around women’s and menstrual health has really served as a critical lever to hold both the male founders who created Pinky Gloves accountable, but also the investor who foolishly decided to support them.
While this revolution of consumer influence may be as exhausting as it is beautiful and powerful, moving forward, businesses must be more cognizant of what they’re doing, for whom they’re doing it, and what their role truly is in creating a more gender-equal world.
At Madami, we developed Women-Centered Design (WCD) to help entrepreneurs test and refine their innovations around women’s needs, as well as to understand the gender dynamics that influence their health and consumer decisions. Utilizing WCD principles can fundamentally improve the design and uptake of products, services and programs. At the same time, WCD has the potential to maximise return on investment because it creates space for understanding the complex factors that impact women’s decision-making as users and consumers.
Women-Centered Design could have really helped Pinky Gloves understand at an earlier stage that their product-market fit, cost and marketing strategy do not actually work to solve any of women’s issues.
Top Take-Aways from #PinkyGate
- For the men in our lives who just need to learn more: Encourage education and open discussions through fun, easy-to-understand resource and opportunities. Clue’s encyclopedia and the OH WOMAN board game are two of our favorite ways to share knowledge without being rude, aggressive or off-putting.
- For innovators: Consult women and girls* and involve them at every stage of product development, especially if it is a product created by men and intended for women to use
- For investors: Put your money where your mouth should be, and increase investment into the Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) space to support existing innovations and scalable business models. A potential co-investor like The Case For Her would be happy to have you at the table!
- For everyone else: Expert and solutionary innovation agencies such as Madami exist specifically to help refine ideas to ensure that products and services truly serve those the innovations are intending to empower. Get in touch to learn more!
Women* and girls* is used to refer to the majority of people who menstruate, however we acknowledge that not all people who menstruate are women and not all women menstruate.