Examining how technology shapes relationships and beliefs

By Ming Yeung, Marketing and Communications

Have you ever wondered why the default voice on digital voice-controlled assistants, like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, are female? 

When Douglas College Philosophy instructor Dr. Jennifer Jill Fellows was teaching a feminist philosophy course in 2017 and introducing the idea of gender performativity, she realized that virtual assistants were the perfect example, as they are gendered. The theory of gender performativity suggests that being born male or female doesn’t determine behaviour. Rather, people learn to behave in particular ways to fit into society. 

Dr. Jennifer Jill Fellows

Biased digital assistants

“There are some philosophers who argue that sex is a social construct, and I found that looking at virtual assistants, like Siri, was really effective because they are so obviously gendered,” Jennifer says. “You can’t assign a sex, but people assign gender and use gendered pronouns to talk about digital assistants all the time.” For this reason, she thinks virtual assistants are a great way to show how sex and gender come apart. 

What’s more, Jennifer – who studies how computer and digital-assistant design and marketing reinforce binaries between human and machine, man and woman, and mind and body – has found that tech companies are constantly feeding our biases back to us, which could be detrimental to the fight for a more equitable future.  

“A lot of times people aren’t even aware that you can be discriminated against by an algorithm or that technology itself can further marginalize people. They can subconsciously reaffirm the outdated social construct and gender bias that women are subservient, quiet, polite and here to ‘assist’ others,” she says. “We want tech to be progressive, and not just feed back to us these outdated, outmoded stereotypes.”

From page to podcast

Dr. Jennifer Jill Fellows recording the Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation podcast.

While studying these phenomena, Jennifer and Dr. Lisa Smith, from the Department of Sociology, came up with the idea of creating a course about gender, sex and technology. 

“We were hammering out the course, and then we looked at each other and thought, ‘This is more than a course, this could be a book,’” Jennifer recalls.  

And then Gender, Sex, and Tech! was released in the spring of 2022. 

The book, showcasing a collection of essays written by a range of established and up-and-coming Canadian scholars, explores everything from how relationships change with the widespread use of smartphones and dating apps, to what we can learn about period poverty by thinking about tech equity. 

The book led to Jennifer creating an interview-style podcast, Gender, Sex, and Tech: Continuing The Conversation. The first season expands on ideas presented in the book, in addition to new observations around gender, sex and technology. 

One episode of the podcast discusses how some social problems, such as sexual violence and sexual racism, are facilitated by technologies. For example, in 2015, a group of fourth year male Dalhousie dental students were discovered to be posting sexually explicit, offensive comments about their female classmates in a closed Facebook group called, “Class of DDS 2015, Gentlemen.” Incidents like this raised the issue of what a university’s responsibilities are to safeguard community members from sexual violence online. 

Continuing the conversation

“Basically, I think that we can’t address these issues unless we’re aware that they exist. So, what I’m trying to do is create a space in the podcast for feminist discussions about this and to shine a light on the issue,” Jennifer says. “Automated systems don’t hold discriminatory beliefs, but they can still perform discriminatory actions. And I think people knowing that helps them fight against it.” 

With the success of the podcast, Jennifer has taken the opportunity to integrate it into her own classroom teaching. She says students can read the chapter from the book and then they can listen to the interview. “Students have responded to that well,” she says. 

From fitness tracking apps to sex robots and much more, you won’t want to miss this series of thought-provoking conversations that continues in the second season.