Martina Mara: “More Women in Robotics!”

Even in the 21st century, robotics R&D is still a male domain. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we discussed this issue with Martina Mara of the Ars Electronica Futurelab. She’s a media psychologist and director of robo-psychology.

Martina Mara
Credit: Christian Ernst

More than 100 years after the first International Women’s Day, gender equality still isn’t a reality in many aspects of everyday life. In this spirit, March 8th is an great opportunity to call to mind that it’s still necessary to encourage women to enter occupations that are not traditionally female, to pursue their own visions, or to dare to take a job in a stereotypically “male domain” such as a high-tech field.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017, the ORF–Austria Broadcasting Company has launched a TV public service message campaign entitled #einefueralle (one for all). These seven clips feature Austrian women who have embarked on very unconventional career paths or are doing jobs atypical of women. One of them is Martina Mara, director of the RoboPsychology R&D division at the Ars Electronica Futurelab. We marked this day by chatting with her about men, women and robots.

In one of the clips ORF is broadcasting in conjunction with International Women’s Day, you mention that, in a robotics discussion, you’re often the only women at the table. Is that really the way it is, still, in 2017?

Martina Mara: Of course, it depends somewhat on the context. At this point, there actually are a few young women who are interested in questions having to do with human-robot interaction and so-called social robotics. Strong female role models such as Cynthia Breazeal at MIT have done a lot to help in this respect. Nevertheless, it’s been my experience far too often that, at a round-table discussion or in R&D joint ventures with robotics departments in academia, I’m the only woman involved. Especially in the engineering field—that is, the technical design of robots—there are simply too few young female engineers. It’s still really difficult to find female programmers and developers; we at the Ars Electronica Futurelab see this often enough.

“Accordingly, the technicians who are now determining how the robots of tomorrow will look are predominantly White males between the ages of 30 and 50.”

Do men design robots differently that women would do it?

Martina Mara: That’s an interesting research question, which we’ll have to look into a little closer. But it would definitely be nonsense to maintain that “the men” or “the women” in general do that better or worse than the other gender. Here, you have to avoid falling into the “Battle of the Sexes” trap. Nevertheless, we can assume that concepts stemming from the socialization process, wishes, and even images implanted by science-fiction series we watched as kids have an influence on the approaches that today’s robotics engineers take to solving a problem. And quite frankly, confronted by some of the robot designs I’ve seen, I have to ask myself what retro-oriented value systems they’re the product of: a ladylike android with a fetching ribbon around her neck; a service robot enwrapped in a suggested apron; or a virtual bot-babe who addresses her user as “Master.” I’m not making this up!

From the perspective of robotic psychology, what’s your general take on ascribing a gender to a robot?

Martina Mara: Basically speaking, I hold the opinion that, in many areas of robotics, we think in far-too-humanoid terms. Over the long term, it will turn out that the classic idea of a highly anthropomorphic household robot is neither effective nor desirable. After all, why should a robot with a feather duster in its hand be more practical than, say, a swarm of very maneuverable cleaning machines that flit autonomously across the floor and walls. Be that as it may, there is research on the effects of gender-specific characteristics on the part of robots. As one would expect, a pink robot with a higher-pitched voice is perceived as feminine and a blue robot with a deeper voice as masculine. Furthermore, studies have shown that robots with stereotypically female features are assessed as particularly competent in performing social tasks, and they are also superior when it comes to encouraging male customers to spend money. This is interesting from a scientific point of view. But then again, when we apply such results in actual practice, in what direction is this going to take us? For me, the bottom line is clear: I’m for more women in robotics, not for more female robots!

Making of

Credit: Christian Ernst

Can campaigns like the one running on ORF do something to achieve this?

Martina Mara: Of course, a few public service messages on TV aren’t going to get the job done, and no one is proceeding under that assumption. But I do indeed regard it as part of my mission to be present in the public sphere and to get the message across, especially to young women: Hey, girls! Women like us are working in robotics too; we’ve got ideas, we’re critical and we’re having a say in design questions! This ORF campaign presented me with a great opportunity and I’m delighted to have been able to take part—along with a couple of other very cool characters. There are many competent, creative women working in various divisions at Ars Electronica, including several mothers—like me. This is great, but it’s still not something that can be taken completely for granted. As I said, there’s a lot of progress to be made, especially in technical development and programming. If the #einefueralle clips reach only a handful of schoolgirls and disabuse them of the notion that a high-tech career is not for them, then my participation will have been a most rewarding experience.

Martina MaraMartina Mara is a media psychologist and head of the Ars Electronica Futurelab’s RoboPsychology research division. In collaboration with worldwide partners in business and science, she analyses how robots should look like, behave, and communicate in order to establish high user acceptance and comfortable interaction experiences for varying target groups. Martina earned her doctorate at the University of Koblenz-Landau’s Institute for Communication Psychology and Media Education with a dissertation on the perception of anthropomorphic machines. She regularly delivers addresses at international conferences—for example, at the Zukunftsinstitut’s Future Day, X Media Lab and Daimler Future Talk—, has been a visiting lecturer at several universities, and writes about social impacts of digital media in her weekly tech column for the “Oberösterreichischen Nachrichten“. In 2014, Martina was the recipient of the Province of Upper Austria’s grant to support the work of talented scientists. And in 2015, she became a mother—but passed on the chance to engage a RoboNanny to care for her daughter.

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