I felt like it was time to write something for the WISDOM blog after a topical BBC article was published recently regarding feminine, sexualised AI bots such as Amazon’s Ask Alexa, or Microsoft’s Cortana, or even — as some Big Bang Theory fans may recall — Siri.
I am not going to speculate on what subtle everyday sexism might feel like to a victim, but what I can do is discuss one example of the sexualisation, and therefore depersonalisation, of women in geekdom.
The great thing about AI bots is that they are not humans, and therefore we can sexualise, and therefore depersonalise, them as much as we want! -right..? Well perhaps, but I suspect we all know that making an anthropomorphised bot into a flirty, soft-voiced, subservient tool is no accident: it sells. Now, playing the sexy assistant role is no crime nor need it be anything to be ashamed of, but there are fewer male characters playing a similar role selling for as much. Apple’s Oliver (male version of Siri) is far less like the sexy receptionist and much more like the friendly but authoritative manager, a trait that I find rather agreeable — thus reinforcing that image of men in my mind.
We can cite even more geeky examples such as video games depicting the man in charge (Mario saving Princess Peach.. she’s a PRINCESS, surely she should be the most powerful figure?) or cartoons with the damsel in distress (see Scooby-Doo’s Daphne Blake), but you probably get the gist.
I am not a psychologist, but I vaguely remember some notion of Role-Model Theory (e.g. Albert Bandura’s ‘Social Learning‘) that would predict that characterising female roles as most suitable for X and male roles as most suitable for Y is a very powerful tool for getting people who identify with one of those boxes to judge themselves and others according to a similarity metric derived from the model archetypes. The result is a vicious circle of stereotyping, casual sexism and sometimes mental health problems for people who aren’t happy in the roles that they’ve been assigned. This is hardly new, feminists and psychologists have been raising these and related issues for years. All I am doing is noting how normalised it is in the technology we consume.
While the majority of nerds see people of any gender as equal in skill and value as a colleague, a laddish culture can still surface from time to time. At an extreme end, rumours of male computer science tutors being flirty, often repeatedly, and with some sending inappropriate pictures, are less rare than one would like. More pervasively, some men expect women to either act like “women” –pretty, a bit flirty but not too much– or to act like “men” –making cheap digs at other men, often using emasculative language such as joking about their sexual impotence, or vocally dominating a mass conversation. Neither of these “male” or “female” social strategies are necessarily wrong, and if such traits are true to yourself then go for it! What should change is the expectation that women must conform to either of these binary cases in the first place.
One method to address it is with one of my favourite tools for social change: irony. All is takes is an overly chirpy but commanding voice from someone other than Oliver and people are forced to judge you on your merits and morals, rather than falling back on lazy stereotypes.
Cultural change takes a long time, and there is some case to be made that we need to find a more effective way of addressing pervasive sexism than getting angry at bad practice or people who perhaps we see as part of the problem. To use a phrase being bounced-around in American journalism a lot nowadays, many of us need to break out of our liberal bubble and accept that a surprisingly large proportion of people from all genders can seem quite misogynistic.
But even if they are the epitome of the alt-right screaming “stop with all this identity politics, gender bias is a myth!” type of person, making them feel attacked and/or guilty will only entrench their largely defensive behaviour. A more gentle approach using great role models of women in science and tech, with a touch of the irony mentioned above, may be more efficacious in the long run. Good thing we have groups like WISDOM taking a more constructive approach towards achieving gender equality.
Gregory Fenn, PhD student