What Do Robots Have To Do With Gender?

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What Do Robots Have To Do With Gender?

Faculty Research Fellow Allison Okamura endeavors to find out.

by Marcie Bianco on Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 9:28am

Do robots have a gender? Or, perhaps more curiously, why do humans feel the need to assign gender to robots?

These are just some of the questions that Faculty Research Fellow Allison Okamura, Stanford University professor of mechanical engineering, posited to an enthusiastic audience during her Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow presentation. 

Okamura’s scholarship focuses on human-centered robotics, including medical robotics and haptic technology (which enables people to interact with virtual environments and robots through touch). As a Clayman Fellow, she became interested in the role of gender identity in the robotics field and increasing women’s representation as students and faculty who work on robotics. The intersection of these interests comprise one aspect of her research, which she articulated in her presentation through inquiring how mechatronic systems can potentially emphasize collaboration over competition to improve learning and diversity in STEM fields. These interests also drive the research she conducts with her lab group, Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM).

Okamura enumerated upon the many ways that the field of robotics has expanded discussions of gender into new and unchartered territory. When she considers what robotics is and what it means in society and in human relations, gender comes into play in important and new ways, particularly in terms of human-robot interaction. Many researchers believe that the gendering of robots is part of our human nature. More interesting to Okamura are the ethical implications of gendering robots: “gendering robots is not necessarily bad,” she observed, “but how is that gendering used?”

Using examples of military robots fashioned as Valkyries and the increasing presence of self-driving cars, Okamura explored how gender has been unwittingly and unconsciously incorporated into mechanical design and programming. She bridged this avenue of inquiry together with one concerning the potential discrepancy between how advancements in robotics aid stereotypical-male versus stereotypical-female jobs, respectively. If, for example, according to automotive insurance companies “women are statistically better drivers than men,” she queried, “what does this mean for how we should program autonomous vehicles?”

Her inquiry into gender and robotics was fostered through the Clayman Institute’s Faculty Research Fellows program, and specifically through the Institute’s former director and current faculty research fellow, Londa Schiebinger, who, via her Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment program, was looking to connect to a scholar of robotics.

Okamura is also interested in whether and how women are represented in the professional associations to which they belong and the scholarly trajectories of early career female robotics graduate students. Her CHARM lab is comprised of a diverse set of student researchers who develop robotic systems that interact with people. For Okamura, the diversity of her lab staff is significant: the near gender parity in her lab countervails wider disparities in the field, where statistics find that women comprise only 11.4% of members in one of the largest robotics research organizations. The diversity in her lab, too, she noted, is conducive to “producing different—and, arguably, better—work.” 

Okamura hopes that her work and the work of scholars like Schiebinger and those affiliated with Gendered Innovations, will inspire new robotics research and change the demographics of the field. Moreover, with the popularity of high school robotics clubs and competitions, robotics already serves as a strong motivator to draw young people into STEM fields broadly. Thus, she said, the field of robotics has the opportunity and responsibility to create environments and experiences for young people that increase diversity in a much wider array of STEM fields.

Allison M. Okamura
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and, by courtesy, of Computer Science
Allison M. Okamura received the BS degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1994, and the MS and PhD degrees from Stanford University in 1996 and 2000, respectively, all in mechanical engineering. She is Professor of Mechanical Engineering department and, by courtesy, of Computer Science. She was previously Professor and Vice Chair of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She has been an...