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Are robots women or men?

We were all genderfluid when we were small, so what happened?

Pablo Picasso “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Is the conversation about gender over? Well, I sort of thought – hoped – it was, until this week! I joined the charismatic Bill Boorman during #TruLondon and attended a session called “Voice Activated Hiring” run by Oscar Mager. To my surprise, the 30-minute session turned very quickly into a conversation around which gender the artificial voice activation should “embody”.

My first thought was – hold on… does Artificial Intelligence need to have a gender? Apparently, it does. 80% of the attendees in the session were men and they all seemed to be quite agitated by this. For those that have never attended #TruLondon, agitated might be hyperbole but I thought it sounded apt- the community that attends the event is extremely relaxed, creative and open to having all sorts of extravagant conversations around the future of technology, which is why I enjoy it so much! But, ultimately, we have been fighting for gender equality for decades now and we are starting to accept gender fluidity as almost mainstream but sometimes we end up back at square one.

Is gender fluidity just a hype or is it here to stay? Fashion has embraced this idea very rapidly, maybe because of the attractive potential of creating a new line and increasing sales, or just because society is heading in this direction. Even Inditex has joined this trend with a collection in their Zara stores. I am a believer that the fashion industry does pick up on social trends rather than the other way around. Unisex perfumes, t-shirts, jumpers, shoes… this is not something new. But some people confuse gender fluidity with dressing a man like a woman and vice versa which I think is part of the reason for the objections and resistance. We are not talking about women who buy their clothes in the men’s section but about the opportunity to include everyone in the aesthetic expression and public statement that fashion allows. And yes, there will be some new boundaries that will be pushed – like skirts for men – but overall, it’s about including everyone and vanishing labelling. Why is not knowing the gender of the person on the end of the line an issue? Why does it bother us not to know if we are talking to a man or a woman? And it seemed from the conversation in the group that gender does bother us even more than knowing if we are speaking to a robot or a real human. Would the new robotic era not be a great opportunity to smash preconceptions and head towards a society with less labels? To know who we are communicating with – gender, nationality, age, race, social status – gives us a sense of control of the situation and helps us built rapport with the person as well as allowing us to speculate what they may know or be thinking. It is about assessing the other person and positioning yourself in the room – sounds to me like a survival technique! …. Were the men in the room just showing their vulnerability and insecurities?

They all seemed very confident in their statements and as I said, the session was fun and relaxed. But it made me think about what thoughts we were having below the surface. An interesting question was thrown into the room: how does an accent affect status in the workforce? Would we find an artificial voice with a Scottish accent more agreeable? I certainly would as I find the accent very pleasant.There are studies that show that those with a strong accent or dialect are paid less. A very interesting article from The Guardian explores this phenomenon and a very surprising number stand behind this idea “28% of Brits feel discriminated against because of the way they speak”. It is fair to say that, in people’s perception, there is a correlation between level of education and accents/dialects. I am from the south of Spain, where we speak with an Andalusian accent; popular culture has always portrayed us as less cultivated – embodying roles in movies, literature and theatre that at one point were almost exclusively farmers and simple people.

What would you respond if I asked you: High or low pitch – what makes you more credible? Last week I read the book “Women in Power A Manifesto” and learnt that Margaret Thatcher went to voice classes to lower her voice pitch when embarking on her political career. So – yes – there is a correlation again between trust, credibility and voice. Hold on, better off with no accent nor dialect, better of with low voice pitch. It sounds like patriarchy to me! Again! Some studies prove that “Women today speak at a deeper pitch than their mothers or grandmothers would have done, thanks to the changing power dynamics between men and women”. Speaking about this topic with a colleague, she flagged “is it not sad we feel we need to become more masculine to be accepted?” It is indeed. I sometimes think of humanity thousands of years ago and I see women and men being close to each other. With culture, religion and evolution we have created mannerisms and labels that are constraining some of us. Others have gained a lot of power building societies full of rules and shaping them in their own interests. The P-Word is here again!

Another colleague felt that the idea of defining gender was making the “machine” more human. Human male, human female. I felt he missed the point! Genderfluid individuals are also humans! SHOCK, right? Scary world out there. And again, I am back at square one.

But there is hope. Watching Olivia, my two-year-old niece, yesterday via facetime jump from the dining table, wearing her pyjamas and flamenco shoes, making some apparent dance attempt while trying to grab Mika – the dog – by the ear, made me suddenly feel hopeful. I wish we could have a future for her with less labels. A future in which we embrace potential and skills. A future in which stereotypes become so diverse there are no stereotypes anymore. Maybe having genderless artificial voices is a beginning for a more accepting future for Olivia.

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