Virtual reality offers endless possibilities for the future, but some tech groups are reminiscing on the past. As our global society continues to progress, said groups are using virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and technology to preserve the archaic. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers, but sexism.

The tech sector is notorious for its exclusion and discrimination against women. While the 1940s and ’50s saw women employed as programmers and engineers, the tech sector began to rapidly expand and become more lucrative. This led to high demand for new hires. System Development Corporation,  a software company founded in 1955, created an aptitude test to help companies fill job positions. However, this test disproportionately identified men as the ideal candidate for engineering jobs—a misconception that continues to shape the tech industry decades later.

In the United Kingdom, 77% of tech director roles are filled by men. In the United States, women account for only 25% of those in computing roles, with Asian women making up just 5%, Black women 3%, and Hispanic women 1%. While women in senior leadership positions grew from 21% to 24% between 2018 and 2019, 37% of women of color reported racial bias as a barrier to promotion.

Because women are not often making the decisions at tech companies, groups predominately made of men are deciding what the future of tech looks like. Given the sector’s “bro-culture,” it’s not shocking that this future imagines women in the subservient roles that feminism and womanism have worked so hard to evolve away from. If there were more women, especially women of color, and nonbinary folks in senior positions across the tech industry, the realities explored by virtual and artificial intelligence would be more innovative and revolutionary. Instead, companies are proud of objectifying women, which is neither innovative nor revolutionary.

Then, in 2016, Sophia stepped onto the scene. Sophia is Hanson Robotics’ most popular humanoid robot model. CNBC describes Sophia as “another example of what some see as a traditional representation of conventionally attractive, submissive-by-design female robots.”

“Social robots like me can take care of the sick or elderly. I can help communicate, give therapy, and provide social stimulation, even in difficult situations,” Sophia told Reuters earlier this year. Each of these roles fits nicely into the emotional labor tasks women are expected to provide for men. And yet, David Hanson, Sophia’s creator, argues Sophia can be used to “speak out on women’s rights.” Even if we pretend this statement makes sense, the question remains: Are women programming Sophia’s understanding of women’s rights, or is it David Hanson and the male-dominated industry behind him?

Voice assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana may not have physical bodies (to be ogled by weirdos), but they are coded as feminine. Researchers behind a 2019 UNESCO report argue that this gendering of voice assistants only reinforces gender bias and sexist harassment, especially since they are programmed to be submissive and servile. The study is titled “I’d Blush If I Could” because this is what Siri used to say in response to statements like, “Hey Siri, you’re a b*tch.” While tech companies might point to research claiming most people prefer to receive help from women and authoritative statements from men, developing technology around this premise isn’t groundbreaking—and isn’t that the whole point of technology, to be groundbreaking?

Even film, which offers the same endless possibilities as technology, has failed to imagine female-coded robots beyond sexist stereotypes and tropes. Films like Her and Ex-Machina believe they are doing something original, and yet both use feminized robots as props in men’s journeys toward understanding themselves—which can also be found in almost every movie ever. In Wired, Angela Watercutter describes this phenomenon as “sentient male androids want to conquer or explore or seek intellectual enlightenment; female droids may have the same goals, but they always do it with a little bit of sex appeal, or at least in a sexy package.”

There is also an increase of AI in the media and entertainment realm. Virtual influencers like Miquela and Shudu were introduced as the future of ads, fashion, and commerce. Vox points out that the virtual influencers working with major fashion labels are “far more diverse than the roster of brand ambassadors and runway models” previously employed by the labels. But these digitized influencers have been accused of advancing stereotypes and impossible body-image standards.

The problem of unrealistic body standards also can be said of girl groups like K/DA and Aespa (styled as æspa). K/DA is a multilingual, virtual pop group created by Riot Games in 2018 comprised of League of Legends champions. Their songs feature the voices of real-life singers (G)I-DLE’s Soyeon and Miyeon, Madison Beer, and Jaira Burns. Aespa, a new four-member girl group that debuted in 2020 under SM Entertainment, also plays with AI. In addition to four real-life members, the group includes four virtual members.

“This group is what I’ve dreamed of as it projects a future world centered on celebrities and avatars, transcending boundaries between the real and virtual worlds,” said Lee Soo-man, chief producer and founder of SM Entertainment, according to The Korea Herald. “The future that I envision will be defined by a world of celebrities and robots.”

K-pop idols already endure strict diet restrictions and creepy behavior, and fans are worried that groups like Aespa will only exacerbate problems like deepfake pornography. Because AI avatars blur the line between virtual and reality, it’s valid to be concerned that virtual influencers and entertainers will only further dehumanize women working in these spaces.

In a time where women are still fighting for their rights, the tech industry’s efforts aren’t helping anyone’s cause. By creating hyper-visible women in the form of robots and AI, the tech industry is using their new innovations as puppets in an effort to distract us from the lack of inclusion, representation, and leadership happening behind the scenes. But it isn’t working.

Obviously, gender is a construct, but tech is only reaffirming this construct when it designs, programs, and codes AI and robots as female. “The future is female” is fun in theory, but wouldn’t it be better if the future of objects in tech is genderless?

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  • Kayla Webb

    Kayla Webb is a writer with a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. When she's not obsessing over words and sentences, Kayla can be found trying to read too many books at one time, snuggling with her cats, and fangirling over everything pop culture.