Why Empowering Female Designers Can Improve Health Outcomes
This post was written by guest blogger Dr. Ramanujam who is the Robert W. Carr Professor of Biomedical Engineering, a faculty member in the Global Health Institute and Dept. Pharmacology and Cell Biology and the founding director of the Center of Global Women’s Health Technologies at Duke University. This article is part of a series on the power of technology in helping crisis-affected populations. To learn more, sign up for a free webinar in our Women Rock IT series here.
The intimidating and uncomfortable duckbill speculum, used to check the cervical health of millions of women around the world, has changed very little since it was invented over 150 years ago in the Antebellum South. Inventor James Marion Sims developed the speculum as a result of gynecological experiments on enslaved women he owned, so the medical device has a deeply problematic origin story, to say the least.
Cervical cancer, when caught early, can be affordably and effectively treated. But the vast majority of women in the poorest parts of the world have never been screened. Why?
There are structural barriers, for example the woman may live in a community far from a health center.
However, one of the bigger challenges is that getting an exam that is painful and scary. In order for a woman to get screened, she has to remove her clothes from the waist down, lie on her back with her feet in stirrups and have one of James Marion Sims’ speculums inserted into her vagina, which is uncomfortable at best and painful for many. The speculum is not only a case study in grossly inadequate design; it amplifies the vulnerability a woman when she is already anxious about being told she has cancer.
When female reproductive anatomy is tinged with shame and stigma, outdated social norms can act invisible barriers that prevent women from talking about their bodies or taking care of them.
Rather than create medical devices that are imposed on women, why not design technologies that instead empower them?
My team of empathetic engineers is doing just that. They invented a medical device called the Callascope, named for its design inspiration, the calla lily. The Callascope allows a woman to perform her own gynecological exam without the need for a speculum or a doctor. Not only is this an accessible solution for cervical cancer screening when experts and expensive equipment are inaccessible, but it also offers women agency over their own health and the opportunity for them to be advocates for themselves.
One woman who used the Callascope said: “When I think of the female reproductive anatomy, I think that it is enigmatic, hidden from us physically — this was an eye-opening experience for me to be able to visualize something that is so intrinsically a part of me that I have never seen in this way before.”
Over time, the expressive potential of the Callascope has led us to create a digital movement called the Calla Campaign to bridge inequities in sexual and reproductive health. Our campaign strives to create a globally-connected community through art exhibits, curation of stories from women around the globe, and a feature-length documentary that showcases the story of the Callascope from its ideation in the lab to its engagement with women in Ghana. Mercy Asiedu, the lead student who invented the device, is from Ghana and was able to come full circle and bring her Ghanian invention back to the women in her country.
The Callascope empowers women to be their own health advocates and it showcases a new kind of innovator who looks like the people she’s designing for. Empowering women like Mercy to be innovators and problem solvers should not be the exception, but the rule.
That’s why we created Ignite, a social innovation program, to empower women and girls in the least-resourced parts of the world to use design thinking to understand and address the most pressing problems for their own communities just as Mercy did. Today, Ignite emphasizes clean energy and water, two global challenges that disproportionately impact women and girls. This is just the beginning. We have trained over 100 university students who have impacted more than 1,000 students across the U.S., Guatemala, Kenya and India using a peer-to-peer co-learning model. Ignite democratizes problem and project-based STEM education through peer-to-peer education.
I believe that a powerful way to tackle gender inequities is to create solutions that empower individuals to overcome structural barriers on their own, whether they are female engineers or patients. The Callascope brings health care directly to women, women who may be afraid, unaware or unable to access care and allows them to reframe their health in their own terms. Ignite brings design thinking and STEM education to women and girls where they live, allowing them to turn problems in their communities to opportunities that they are empowered to address. When we empower women to be agents of change, we have the power to break with the old, the unacceptable, and in many cases – the inconceivable – and create a new vision for a better world. As one of my students said, we should all aspire to spark the multiplier effect inherent to each woman by equipping her with the confidence, education, and tools so she can close the gender inequity gap. I hope we can all join forces to do just that.