AI branding is sexist but needn’t be

by | May 21, 2019

With men dominating the tech industry, is it any wonder that AI branding is sexist?

AI branding is sexist, but why is this a problem for the real world? 

Artificial intelligence and robotics are propelling us into a new future beyond our imaginations. But at the same time it seems to be clinging to old gender stereotypes bringing us firmly back to previous eras. Sadly, AI branding is sexist. There is no doubt, the world of AI and robotics is populated by male designers and developers. Yet support software and robots, when they morph into a humanized form, become female. Alexa, Siri, Sophia and Xin Xiaomeng, the first Chinese (female) robot news anchor that launched her career in March, are all clearly feminine. Why is that?

Andy Spence highlighted this at Unleash in Las Vegas

You would think the code which executes programmed functions would be gender neutral. But it seems that when we need to give AI a human form or voice, the ones we prefer are female. Even chat bots frequently have female names.We also saw this with the female AI characters in movies such as Bladerunner 2049, and Ex Machina. There is something in male thinking that at some subliminal level, sees women as being better suited to providing a service, or being subservient to men in the world of AI. It might be something they are used to, or reflect a preference.

AI is feminine

We now have  AI in our homes with our virtual assistants assuming feminine personas too. There are male options, but the default setting is female. Dr. Patti Fletcher, author of best-selling Disrupters: Success Strategies From Women Who Break The Mold  says that "Vendors often claim that market testing results show we want to hear female voices when we need assistance."  Vendors including designers, developers, product management and marketing perpetuate stereotypes. We are used to seeing and expecting women to be there to "help" and support. Tech companies choose not to lead customers to a new viewpoint or perception. Many elements of workplace AI are gender neutral, but any form of artificial virtual assistance leans towards perpetuating gender stereotyping in a significant way.

Maybe it's the fear of the future and the way automation and AI will impact our lives. Perhaps there is a need to soften it and make it seem more manageable, as though the user is in control. And there is no faster way to do that by designing something that is easy on the male eye, with a soothing voice carrying out a role in a way that is familiar to us or we hanker after. If software vendors want to satisfy their customers, what better way to achieve that than to create something that sounds like a nurturing and caring '50s housewife or diner waitress?

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AI branding is sexist

Downsides

Creating AI in a female form is not without downsides. Sexist assumptions make it more likely that Alexa and other AI will not be treated with respect, and will be abused in a subservient role. Alexa has even been subject to harassment. To counteract this, the designers created a disengaged mode in response to customer feedback so that "she" will no longer respond to sexist questions. There is a whole generation of kids growing up with smart phones who believe it's OK to be rude and lose their temper with a female sounding voice. AI gives no time-outs or applies consequences. The next stage should be a software shut down at any inappropriate requests or an abusive tone of voice.  This might well induce a backlash of faux outrage at perceived political correctness coming from their digital servant.  AI is a product and many vendors are not going to rock the cultural boat.

Solutions

It's hard to know where this is headed. Getting more women into tech will certainly help, but this is not an immediate solution. Until female customers speak out and speak up, a retrograde view of women will be perpetuated in AI. With technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, we need to do that quickly.

We have to consider the impact this trend will that have on the way women are perceived by swathes of the population used to barking instructions at a Siri or Alexa without consequences. While AI branding continues to be sexist, for us women, the past will become our future.

Gender stereotyping and sexism are rooted in the subconscious.  Learn how to tackle that with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshop. Find out more HERE.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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