Friday Fave: It’s time to talk about robot gender stereotypes


The robots are back again. This week, my selected article introduces a topic that at face value is easy to accept. However, with deeper consideration, it raises a topic that will have far-reaching impacts into our future with robots as co-workers and representation of ourselves. Right in the opening sentence, the article outlines the profound challenge:

“Robots are the most powerful blank slate humans have ever created.”

In particular, the article is referring to the humanoid robots – not the vacuum cleaner thing scooting around under your feet – and immediately, the issue of gender becomes critical. There are already studies that indicate people think differently about masculine shaped robots doing heavy duty tasks versus the more feminine voiced robots that we’re familiar with as virtual assistants. And of course, as the article identifies, the robot makers can easily replicate the stereotyped gender and behaviours to make their products more saleable.

Then – what if we, as the people interacting with the humanoid robots, respond to their body shape and size? Another study cited highlights that if a large, broad-shouldered robot is working in a hospital, we may be hesitant to interact with it – it looks too big and threatening versus gentle and caring.

The challenge for designers can be de-coupling the physicality of the body with strength by replacing the perception of size with machines that can achieve the task.

But – we, people, have this habit of anthropomorphising objects (attributing human characteristics). We frequently gender-relate our objects. We’ll refer to items as “he” or “she” and talk about them, even naming them, in a gendered manner. Robot-makers will be challenged by our expectations of what gender a robot doing these tasks “should be” and our desire to create a personality for them.

What a fascinating time to be designing robots!! But what long-term impact will this have on society and how we represent our robot coworkers? The last sentence of the first paragraph says it all:

“What we make of the machine reflects what we are.”


This post is part of a weekly Friday Faves series contributed by the team at Ripple Effect Group. Read the entire series and collections from other team members here.