Gender Matters

Are there gender issues within robotics culture?

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Among different ethical concerns robot developers face in their work, one challenge is particularly pressing: Gender equality.

The question of gender in robotics continues to be bound to the distinction and relationship between men and women and the related absence of female perspectives in robot design. The latter emerges as an ethical problem both in terms of underrepresentation of women in the robotics sector as well as overlooking women as end-users / affected stakeholders with their own needs and viewpoints.

Here we aim to help identify and understand the existing gender stereotypes in robotics as well as propose alternative ways to bring more gender balance to both the design and use of robots based on REELER research.

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Human Proximity Model

 

A new technological context makes the need to address gender equality even more urgent when it is primarily males who are designing a world that profoundly impacts the world for everyone.

The General Lack of Women in Technology

To this day, despite decades of equal pay legislation and significant investments in educational strategies across different countries, patterns of underachievement and perceptions of women as less technically competent persist.

There remains a significant gender difference/imbalance in the uptake of undergraduate, graduate, and faculty posts and business relating to AI and robotics.

However, women in Europe are gradually closing the gender gap in science and engineering, with an increase of women who made up more than a third (40.5%) of scientists and engineers in the EU-28 in 2017. Yet negative work experiences impact women’s decisions to leave, isolation, male-dominated work environments, bias and lack of effective women role models are all factors pushing women to leave STEM jobs.

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Key Issues for Gender Awareness

In general, the subject of gender in robotics concerns as much robot developers as their creations. A predominantly male perspective may affect the outcome of robot developers’ work, often without roboticists even being aware of it.

This is particularly true for the cases where predominantly male roboticists develop robots for sectors that are dominated by women, e.g. education or the cleaning industry.

Underrepresentation of Women and Gendered Work Division

As far as robotics and robot applications are concerned, women's participation is seriously limited. Compared to men, there are much fewer women who are involved as robot developers, both in the academia and industry, as well as robot end-users in certain sectors.

Moreover, the absence of women also takes place in some sectors and industries that make use of robots, for example in the agriculture or warehouse sector. This often leads to a situation where male roboticists develop robots for predominantly male end-users, and therefore, further perpetuate the existing gender gap.

Across all 11 cases, women made only 18.9% of the REELER participants among roboticists, and as mentioned rarely as CEOs and often in other roles as engineers. They made 38.8% among affected stakeholders, which is also tied to the types of robots we studied, robots in construction sites, where the affected stakeholders are mostly male.

Male Perspectives on Female Realities

Male perspectives are often treated as the norm for the design and use of robots, and man is generally viewed as ‘default human’ (Criado-Perez 2019). Despite being half the population, women’s qualities, needs and perspectives are often overlooked or analysed only as relative to male norms. Yet, male perspectives are often depicted as ‘gender-neutral’ and ‘universal’.

Giving Voice

Click on to listen to the Affected Stakeholder. You can expand the content to full screen by clicking on the bottom right corner.

Gendered Robots

Given the human tendency to anthropomorphise inanimate objects as well as human-like appearance and behaviours designed into some robots, the question of gender also applies to robotic systems and related human-robot interactions.

Gender is generally viewed as one of the characteristics that may help creating an anthropomorphic effect in robots and improve the social acceptance of robots. End-users also tend to project gender-specific characteristics onto robots, even those far from being human-like.

The use of gender may serve mainly to achieve particular design objectives. A decision to apply specific gender characteristics to the design and use of robots may not only reflect but also reinforce gender stereotypes, both on the robot developers’ and end-users’ side.

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  • Sex: Biological characteristics that classify an individual as female or male.
  • Gender: Socio-cultural process and social meanings ascribed to men and women.
  • Feminism: The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

Key Concepts

Reflection Points

  • What are the possible strategies to increase women participation in robotics that could potentially succeed in your work environment?
  • How do you think the outcome of your work would change if more women were involved? Why?
  • Can you think of any example of differences between female and male end-users that may potentially affect the robot design other than those related to body features?
  • Do you consider gender an ethical challenge in robotics? Why?

Concluding Remarks on Gender

The underrepresentation of women in the cultural spaces from which robots are emerging might inevitably reinforce gender inequality and harmful stereotypes, while leading to designs ill-suited for women end-users.

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