Lady Robots, Dude Robots, and the Echo Chamber of Gender Stereotypes

In an unexpected follow-up to my brief post about ancient Greek lady robots made of gold who practiced smithcraft, we hear about a clever gender-and-robotics study out of Germany. And now we know that gender stereotypes are really, really easily applied to robots, even if the robot doesn't have a body.

They [the subjects] looked at the heads of the two human-like machines, which were identical except for two details. The “feminine” one had longer hair and a slight curvature of the lips; the “masculine” one had shorter hair and straight lips.

Participants then were given a list of 24 traits and asked the extent to which they felt the robot embodied each of them. Twelve were related to agency, such as “assertive” and “dominant,” while 12 represented communal values including “polite” and “affectionate.”

Next, the students were asked to rate how likely they would be to use each of the robots for a list of possible duties incuding stereotypical male tasks like “guarding the house” and stereotypically female tasks such as preparing meals.

Guess what comes next -- go on, guess:

Participants were more likely to view the short-haired robot in masculine terms, and suggest it was more suitable for such take-action tasks as “repairing technical devices” and “guarding a house.” Conversely, the long-haired robot was perceived as more appropriate for such stereotypically feminine tasks such as household chores and caring for children and the elderly.

Sad trombone for gender equality.

The researchers note their results could be used in two ways. From a social-policy point of view, it might be worthwhile for designers to develop “counter-stereotypical machines,” which could challenge our rigid conceptions of “male” and “female” work.

On the other hand, they note, if the goal is “to facilitate human-robot interaction” and minimize mistakes and accidents, it makes sense to design robots that conform to our human assumptions.

The problem with that second suggestion is that gender-conforming robots -- can I call them cis robots? let's call them cis robots -- won't be merely a compromise with flawed human assumptions. They will instead confirm and reinforce gender stereotypes.

It is one thing for a woman to have long hair and work in a traditionally feminine-coded career like, say, teaching. She's an individual, making the best choices she can to maximize her own position in a system that is seriously rigged against her -- much more so if she's disabled or a woman of color. We all have to put food on the table somehow, and we have to use our individual skills and inclinations as best we can.

In contrast, imagine someone mass-produces teaching robots with long hair and curving lips -- this is a much stronger statement about matching feminine-coded work with feminine-coded appearance. It means someone has made an individual assumption that teaching = feminine, and the hundreds of teaching robots will echo and amplify that assumption. Stereotypes will be reinforced when they need breaking down.

So yes, let's make all the counter-stereotypical robots we can. And then let's give them a classroom of curious third graders, because pretty much everyone can agree that would be entertaining.

*Side note: did you notice that headline? "Sex Stereotypes and the Single Robot" -- 'robot' replacing the word 'girl.' It's an allusion to Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, who made Cosmopolitan what it is today. We are talking about human-shaped machines to take over unwanted jobs and free us from tedious labor, and the headline equates those human-shaped tedious-labor machines with women. There are not enough facepalms in the world.