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Gender is increasingly considered a construct; MRI imaging has revealed that there’s no physiological difference between the male and female brain. In other words, what people read as ‘male’ or ‘female’ personality traits are societally-created, rather than biologically set. And today’s fluid approach to gender identity – which has people picking which traits to perform or adopt – can be seen as a reclamation of what was previously restrictive.

In ‘Male or Female: Is Gender A Construct?’, part of a series of cross-disciplinary salons organised by London-based Jugular, Dr. Kathleen Richardson, senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics, Judy Nadel, head of the Badass Women empowerment collective, Tom Ross-Williams, director of the Populace theatre company of politics and optimism, and Dr. Heather Brunskell-Evans, professor of Gender, Media, and Culture at the London School of Economics, discussed how much our perception of gender has – and hasn’t – changed in contemporary society.

And even with a more open dialogue surround it, it’s a polarising issue. While Ross-Williams says the freedom to choose genders is a sign of social progress, Dr. Brunskell-Evans argues that “binary division is not itself constrictive, and self-defining a gender identity is not gender fluid.” 93% of US Gen Yers believe people are exploring gender more than ever before, and 56% of US Gen Zers say they know someone who uses non-gendered pronouns. Thanks to the decades-long fight for diversity and inclusion, these attitudes have become a part of the mainstream; Jaden Smith genderqueered Louis Vuitton by fronting the 2016 womenswear campaign, and Selfridges did away with binary labels at its Agender retail concept in 2015.

Gender fluidity is no longer a niche idea
Louis Vuitton (2016) ©

If the debate revealed anything, though, it’s that nothing is neutral ground. Dr. Richardson notes that even ‘rational’ fields like science and medicine are influenced by societal bias, illustrating her point with recent developments in AI. From Amazon’s Alexa to Microsoft’s Cortana, many AI ‘personal assistants’ are designed to show female characteristics – the result of focus groups which revealed people associated female voices with ‘warmth’ and ‘helping them solve problems themselves’ (male voices were seen as ‘useful’ and ‘authoritative’).  And because AI learns from the humans that feed it data, it’s susceptible to assimilating harmful prejudices; in the US, a ‘predictive policing’ bot was found to be twice as likely to mistakenly flag black defendants as being at a higher risk of committing future crimes.

The majority of people want brands to uphold their ethics, and make subconscious decisions based on whether they find a business to be in tune with their values. But will Silicon Valley – which isn’t exactly known for its equality – do enough to ensure AI doesn’t take on society’s prejudices? And is society en masse even able to possess a united front on an issue as fluid, malleable and personal as gender?

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Alex Quicho is a writer and cultural researcher in London. Born in Boston and raised in Manila, she writes about identity, futures, and soft power in art and design.

19 Aug 16

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