Aesthetically appealing female robots in subservient roles have become increasingly prevalent since the concept of artificial intelligence was first conceived in the 1950s.
Early examples in advertising include the controversial ‘spokesbot’ for Swedish vodka brand Svedka, first introduced in 2005, who posed suggestively alongside taglines such as, “Are u bot or not?” and “Make your next trophy wife 100% titanium”.
In 2007 came Heineken’s ‘Draughtkeg’ commercial, which featured a dancing robotic woman with four arms and the ability to dispense beer from her body – prompting AdAge to ponder if Heineken had successfully produced “the most sexist beer commercial ever”. Not to be outdone, to advertise their Robot Skin Moisturizing Shaving System, Phillips designed a female robot who removes a razor from her wrist to shave a showering man. Both campaigns used the idea of a sleek and submissive woman who also happens to be a literal object.
Today’s increasingly popular intelligent virtual assistants – such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana – may not be as provocative, but they remain typically female, servile, and available to cater to your every whim.
Dr Ileana Stigliani, Assistant Professor of Design and Innovation at Imperial College Business School, argues that the issue stems from a clear lack of gender diversity in the technology industry – reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes, and further deterring women from studying computer science.
“If the people teaching computers to act like humans are only men, there is a strong likelihood that the resulting products will be gender biased. This could explain why we’re seeing more sexualised ‘fembots’ or machines with a view of the world that reflects the group who created them – for instance, white men,” she said.
If the people teaching computers to act like humans are only men, there is a strong likelihood that the resulting products will be gender biased.
“The stereotypical image of AI being a male dominated industry full of technology ‘geeks’ means that many women probably rule themselves out from this field, because they don’t believe there are opportunities for them in a culture that doesn’t seem to welcome women.”
Jas Chana, an Imperial College MBA alumna, explained that “as home computers became a mass market product in the 80s, they were advertised to men as ‘boys’ toys’, and this has been deemed to have influenced more men in pursuing education and careers in computer science.”
Dr Stigliani said that while these factors can make AI seem like a less appealing career choice compared to industries where gender diversity is more visible, “women often possess strong creative confidence and a more flexible and innovative approach to problem solving – qualities which make them well suited to careers in AI and other areas of technology, which often demand the ability to think unconventionally when facing challenges.”
She believes that educational institutions have a responsibility to encourage more female students to take advantage of the diverse range of careers now emerging in AI, technology and innovation.
“Imperial College does this in a number of ways. For example, the annual Althea-Imperial Programme encourages female student entrepreneurs in science and technology to come up with a business idea that solves a real societal challenge in a bid to win a £10,000 prize.”
The Business School was recognised with a Bronze Athena SWAN award in October 2016 for its work in tackling gender inequality in higher education.
“Our MBA programme also offers core courses on Design Thinking, which teach the ability to empathise with the people you’re designing the service or product for. As we progressively move towards a world dominated by AI, preserving products and services operated by humans rather than machines will become even more important.”
As we progressively move towards a world dominated by AI, preserving products and services operated by humans rather than machines will become even more important.
Ms Chana said that the lack of gender diversity is a serious problem for technology organisations.
“In recent years, workforce diversity and gender equality has risen to the forefront of public awareness as US technology giants including Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon have released stats on the talent make-up of their workforce. These collectively show that the majority of professionals inside these organisations are white and male – women account for less than 30 percent of the technology workforce.”
She asserted that the emergence of AI “raises some fundamental questions on how the industry brands itself.”
“What names should we give to these products and services, and should these be male, female or gender neutral? More needs to be done to make AI more appealing to a wider market, and to ensure more people are able to benefit from advancements in technology.”
“The digital sector is one of the most innovative and fastest-growing in the UK, and plays a fundamental role within the British economy. Yet it has so far failed in terms of involving both men and women equally in employment, and thereby in the creation of new products and services,” she said.
The emergence of the network age gives the industry an opportunity to be seen as a trail blazer: to reinvent the workplace and iron out inequalities in society.
“Some of the most popular consumer services have been based on the reinvention of mothers, but in app form – food delivery, laundry services, bag packing. Useful, yes. But the best is surely yet to come. Let’s have the rest of the decade be about innovations to serve everyone else – the elderly, working mothers, people who live in rural areas and people who are sick.”
“The emergence of the network age gives the industry an opportunity to be seen as a trail blazer: to reinvent the workplace and iron out inequalities in society.”
Dr Ileana Stigliani’s research is forthcoming at Administrative Science Quarterly and has been published in the Academy of Management Journal, the International Journal of Management Reviews, Organizational Dynamics, and the International Small Business Journal. At Imperial College Business School she teaches the Design Thinking core modules for FTMBA and IEM MSc students.
Jas Chana is an emerging technology and innovation consultant at The Sound Horizon. She is also a member of Founders of the Future, which uses AI and trusted recommendations to uncover, nurture and guide the most promising entrepreneurial talent in technology in Europe.