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Sex Stereotypes and the Single Robot

• August 07, 2012 • 9:50 AM

German researchers report putting long hair on a robot is sufficient to get people to assign it “feminine” tasks.

How strongly do we cling to our ideas about the proper roles of men and women? We even apply them to robots.

That’s the clear conclusion of newly published research from Germany, which finds one needn’t have any actual sex organs to be the target of gender stereotypes.

In the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, psychologists Friederike Eyssel and Frank Hegel of the University of Bielefeld describe an experiment in which 60 students—30 men and 30 women—were asked to evaluate “modern technologies of the future.” Specifically, they were asked to look at images of two new robots and consider their potential uses.

They looked at the heads of the two human-like machines, which were identical except for two details. The “feminine” one had longer hair and a slight curvature of the lips; the “masculine” one had shorter hair and straight lips.

Participants then were given a list of 24 traits and asked the extent to which they felt the robot embodied each of them. Twelve were related to agency, such as “assertive” and “dominant,” while 12 represented communal values including “polite” and “affectionate.”

Next, the students were asked to rate how likely they would be to use each of the robots for a list of possible duties incuding stereotypical male tasks like “guarding the house” and stereotypically female tasks such as preparing meals.

The results?

Participants were more likely to view the short-haired robot in masculine terms, and suggest it was more suitable for such take-action tasks as “repairing technical devices” and “guarding a house.” Conversely, the long-haired robot was perceived as more appropriate for such stereotypically feminine tasks such as household chores and caring for children and the elderly.

This indicates “how deeply ingrained gender stereotypes seem to be,” Eyssel said.

The researchers note their results could be used in two ways. From a social-policy point of view, it might be worthwhile for designers to develop “counter-stereotypical machines,” which could challenge our rigid conceptions of “male” and “female” work.

On the other hand, they note, if the goal is “to facilitate human-robot interaction” and minimize mistakes and accidents, it makes sense to design robots that conform to our human assumptions.

In any event, it seems we’ve once again traveled back to the future—specifically, the fictional future depicted in the 1960s animated series The Jetsons. If memory serves, Rosie, the robot maid, cooked a mean pot roast.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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