Sexist Short Circuit

Man is to woman as computer programmer is to…? Homemaker. How about father is to mother as doctor is to…nurse. These analogies are the result of an algorithm based on three million Google News word searches. Reading about this algorithm and ways in which technology can actually further entrench gender inequality, and even oppress women, got me thinking about how, as an industry we are acutely focused on tech advancements and how brands can leverage these to their advantage (e.g. chatbots, smart technology, AI, VR etc); but in some cases, are these technologies continuing to fuel gender imbalance? If they do, can they be attractive solutions for brands?

Gender Equality

Gender Equality was the topic to tackle for Mindshare Day back in February, so it has been particularly front-of-mind for me since then. I feel there’s a resurgence in discussion of the gender divide, specifically across the media industry.

The more obvious gender imbalances are brought to the fore and within the public realm, such as the gender pay gap (an example of late when both the BBC and RTÉ published salaries for their top staff) and gender stereotyping in advertising (in July this year the ASA in the UK announced they are to introduce new guidelines to tackle gender stereotyping in ads).

When we see posters that ask women “are you beach body ready”, it puts the problem out in the open so much so that the posters are defied with “this oppresses women” stickers. These gender problems are exposed and I imagine – or would like to believe – the majority of people are aware and somewhat shocked when they continue to see and hear more of the same. Not only this, but sexist advertising is just not effective (check out Oisin Fahy’s blog post). What about the non-overt sexism and potential gender oppression that we’re not shouting about and not really aware of? Technology has seeped into every part of our daily lives, is underhand sexism seeping in too?

Gender in Technology

‘Ok Google, what is the capital of Canada?’

The default response voice is that of a female (it can be changed to male). Same with Siri. And with Alexa and Cortana. We’re barking commands and demanding a response from a female assistant. Assistants are set to default as female.

Research from Indiana University suggests that voice assistants are set up to have a human voice rather than a robot voice. As humans, we prefer this. A female voice is considered warmer and nurturing by both sexes, so this may help explain why it’s the default for voice assistants. But it was noted in the study that gender stereotypes when choosing voice options are present; when being taught about computers, both men and women prefer a male voice. When talking about love and relationships, a female voice is preferred. In reference to Clifford Nass’ seminal book Wired for Speech, Jessi Hempel, Wired, wrote

People tend to perceive female voices as helping us solve our problems by ourselves, while they view males voices as authority figures who tell us the answers to our problems. We want our technology to help us, but we want to be the bosses of it, so we are more likely to opt for a female interface.

It’s not just voice that lends itself to gender imbalance – a study by the University of Washington found that women were significantly underrepresented in Google image search results.

  • In a Google image search for CEO, 11% of the results showed women, compared with 27% of US CEOs who are women.
  • 25% of people depicted in image search results for authors are women, compared with 56% of US authors who are women.
  • 64% of telemarketers depicted in image search results were female, an occupation that is evenly split between men and women.

A campaign this year by Mindshare Denmark for Dove, called Image_Hack, confronted this issue and is a beautiful example of how brands can turn gender stereotyping on its head. The campaign hacked into the Shutterstock image library and replaced the hyper-sexualised images that appear when you search for beautiful women or real women. They were replaced with realistic images of women in society today.

Despite the downfalls, technology can be a powerful tool to help with serious social issues. The Social Innovation Fund (a project equally funded by Google and the Irish government) is set up to find and support innovation that solves critical issues in Ireland, help them to grow and spread across the country. Apps such as Foodcloud and BFriend are helping charitable work. Technology has the ability to alleviate social problems.  In a recent Mindshare blog post, Peter Sweeney said that instead of replacing us, technology needs to replicate us. But we need to make sure it replicates the gender equal side of us.