A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology questions the consequences of gendered technology. The findings indicate that gendered technology reinforces harmful gender stereotypes while also increasing individual affection for anthropomorphized technology. The latter has resulted in marketing opportunities for technology companies.
Researchers Ashley Martin and Malia Mason assert that 90% of virtual assistants are initially programmed with a binary female gender. This matches the negative stereotype of women as compliant and available to serve. If the consequence of gendering technology is to support negative gender stereotypes, why do companies continue to produce gendered technology? The research team hypothesized that gendered technology creates affection, which increases the individual desire for these products.
An initial study mined Amazon customer reviews for evidence of gendering technology combined with attachment language. The researchers analyzed 9,767 reviews. “We tested if reviewers who referred to their anthropomorphized vacuum with a gendered pronoun were (i) more inclined to use attachment language in their reviews and (ii) if they rated their vacuums more highly than reviewers who did not refer to their vacuums in gendered terms,” they explained.
Martin and Mason then conducted four distinct studies with a total of 1,013 participants (average age of 36 and 55% were female). Participants were asked about feelings toward gendered technology.
First, participants were asked to talk about their robotic vacuums and rate their feelings from indifferent to love. A second group was to describe gendered virtual assistants and non-gendered assistants, then were asked to rate those descriptions for how human-like they were.
Finally, participants were presented with one of three options, a new car gendered female, a new car gendered male, or a genderless new car. They were then asked to rate the car’s humanness, and the researchers assessed gender stereotypes associated with the gendered cars.
The results of these studies found that when participants owned or thought about gendered technology, they were more likely to see the item as more human. If they owned a gendered technology item, participants felt more attached to the item. Gendered items also led to more negative stereotypical thinking about gender. The investigation of Amazon reviews revealed that when people gendered their products, they used more attachment language.
The research team posits that companies produce and will continue to use gendered technology because it increases customer attachment to the product. The promise of attachment may also be a motivation to purchase a product. Martin and Mason state, “Our sense is that the benefits of gendering technological devices are accrued primarily by the companies that sell them while the costs (i.e., reified stereotypes) are shared by society at large.”
The researchers acknowledge that the participants were all from the United States, and it is possible that these results may not apply in all cultures where gendered technology is present. Also, the study focused on attachment as a variable; it is possible that other variables influence the purchase of gendered technology—price or company loyalty, for example.
This research supports a move toward de-gendering technology while researching other mechanisms to increase attachment to technology. Indeed, future research will need to prove the benefits of non-gendered technology to instigate change in the business sector.
The study, “Hey Siri, I love you: People feel more attached to gendered technology“, was authored by Ashley Martin and Malia Mason.