You've already judged this robot

Last updated 05:00 24/08/2012
robot

YOU'VE ALREADY JUDGED THIS ROBOT: Gender stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our society that even robots are subject to sexism

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Historically we've enjoyed arguing that women are inherently different to men, not only in our physical lady-bits but in our temperament, abilities and behaviours. Testosterone and other hormones, different brain structures, they all lead to certain inevitable "hard-wired" gender-based differences and, even, inequalities.

So ingrained is this idea in our society that many people think it silly to question it. When Melbourne academic Cordelia Fine wrote her excellent book Delusions of Gender, there was outrage. Fine's aim was to take a critical look at the various scientific experiments and theories that purport to show hard-wired gender differences in the brain.

Fairfax columnist Elizabeth Farrelly was a typical critic, describing the book as "nurture-fascism" based on a "brittle edifice". How - Farrelly imperiously opines - could Fine be so silly as to think there are no hard-wired gender differences when transgender people know they were born the wrong gender?

Of course, Fine is not arguing that there are no genders, or that we don't feel to be a certain gender, but rather that how we act out our gender has never really been really proven to be hard-wired in the brain rather than learned.

This cute new study into human-robot interactions shows just how strongly learned our ideas about gender are. The researchers showed 60 people images of two robots that were virtually identical, except one had 'female' features such as slightly longer hair and slightly bowed lips.

They then asked them what roles the robots were most suited for, and which robot they would like to help them with a verbal or mathematical task. The men and women in the study believed the male-looking robots were more suited to stereotypically male jobs such as repairing technical devices and guarding a house, while the women-robots were more suited to household-based or caring jobs.

"Our findings also document that gender stereotypes seem to be so deeply ingrained that people even applied them to machines with a male or a female appearance," the researchers wrote in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

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Interestingly, though, when the participants were asked which tasks they would like the robots to help with, the results were at least a little murkier. They were much more likely to suggest that the male robot help with the maths task rather than the verbal task, but when they were asked about the female robot they were happy to have her help with both.

The researchers suggest this is because people were worried about discriminating against the female robot - my suspicion is that her "femaleness" was balanced out a bit by her "robotness", to which we all would probably attribute a fair bit of mathematical ability and not a lot of verbal ability.

When gender stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our society that even robots are subject to sexism, it becomes very difficult to pick apart what parts of our behaviour are hard-wired.

Scientists often turn to children affected at an early age by hormonal conditions, but as this study shows, even those children are subject to socialisation based on perceptions about how these hormonal changes might influence their behaviour.

As Fine shows in her book, there is a vast body of scientific research that claims to show "hard-wired" gender-based brain differences that could equally be showing socialised differences (if only the researchers didn't have preconceptions about what they were looking for).

As she quite rightly notes, people who make claims of hard-wired gender differences like to take on the role of the martyrs against political correctness who only seek the scientific truth, but the reality is they are simply regurgitating long-held and widely popular views.

(I thoroughly recommend her book, by the way. It manages to be a ripping, hilarious read as well as being scientifically solid).

How often have you heard the parents who say they fully intended to raise their children in a gender-neutral way... until they discovered their little girl only wanted to wear pink and play with dolls? Question answered: nurturing, pink, flowers and babies are simply hard-wired in girls.

As if culture-ingrained beliefs and behaviours would be so easily overcome by their intentions! (No-one would claim that they intend to raise their child with an English accent and then decide that Australian accents are hard-wired because their kid began talking with one.)

So next time you hear a researcher or "commentator" claiming inevitability in gender-based differences, take what they are saying with a grain of salt. Remember, wont somebody think of the robots?

Thanks to Mind Hacks for the robot paper.

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