Culture & Society

Rock and Role: How Assigning Gender to Inanimate Objects Influences Us

In this episode, Ashley Martin explains how ideas about gender affect our interactions.

June 27, 2023

Why is a boat a “she?” Why give names like Alexa or Siri to inanimate pieces of software? According to assistant professor of organizational behavior Ashley Martin, ascribing gender to everyday objects helps us to connect with them more deeply.

“Gender is this humanizing force that allows people to interact with non-human things as if they’re human,” says Martin, whose research focuses on gender equality, gender inclusion, and gender’s role within team and organizational dynamics. And while Martin is interested in how anthropomorphizing technology can benefit the humans who use it, she also notes how “problematic stereotypes” could be perpetuated as a result.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Martin joins host Matt Abrahams to discuss how our ideas about gender inform the way we relate to the world and how we can leverage the latest research to promote greater diversity, equity, and inclusion

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matthew Abrahams: I’ve always been curious why we give human characteristics to nonhuman things. For example, we use gender when we refer to our cars, our tools, even our storms like hurricanes. Today we explore gender on people and things. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

Today I am super excited to be joined by Ashley Martin, who is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB. Ashley’s research focuses on gender equality and inclusion, and she teaches a course in managing groups and teams. Welcome, Ashley. I’m super happy to get a chance to speak with you.

Ashley Martin: Thank you so much, Matt. I’m really excited to be here.

Matthew Abrahams: Awesome. Well, let’s rock and roll, and I literally mean that. I’d like to chat about how I first came to know your research. I read about a rock study you did that shed interesting light on gender and gender roles. Can you please share your rock study? What was that all about?

Ashley Martin: So, in this study, we were trying to capture how important gender is when we think about what it means to be human. And so, usually the way people do this is they look at faces or they use neural imaging. And oftentimes this is because it’s really hard to isolate social categories when we’re thinking about human beings. They come with a variety of them. So, when looking at any given person, we can see their race, their age, their gender, their level of attractiveness. And so, it’s really hard to isolate the importance of any given social category.

And so, what we did was we thought we would use the process of anthropomorphism. And for everyone listening, anthropomorphism, you do it all the time, I guarantee. It’s essentially treating a nonhuman thing as if it was human, as if it has unique emotions or a personality. We do it all the time. We see faces in plugs on the wall. We treat our pets as if they’re part of the family. We talk to our plants or our cars. And what this allows us to do is really create a human out of something that’s not there and see which social categories go along with that.

And so, what we did in the lab with the rock was we had participants come in the lab and we gave them a river rock — so a 5 to 7 inch river rock — and a bunch of googly eyes, some pompoms, sparkles, paints, markers, an embarrassment of riches of materials, and we asked them to make a pet rock, to create a humanlike rock to make the rock come alive. And so, they were given about 15 minutes to decorate a humanlike rock.

And so, once they finished that task, we asked them the importance of different social categories in doing that task. So, how important was gender while you were creating a rock, how important was race or age or sexual orientation, a number of different social categories that are usually important when we look at a human being. And what we found was very interesting, in my opinion. Almost everyone used gender when they were anthropomorphizing their rock, and it was very easy to see.

You can see it with the eyelashes, with rosy cheeks, with the beards, the long hair, the jewelry. It was just very apparent the gender of this rock. Well, other social categories were harder to tell. And what was also very interesting about that study was that we found that gender was also the most predictive social category in how humanlike that rock was seen to be. And so, that study really showed us how important gender is in humanization.

Matthew Abrahams: That, to me, is just fascinating not only because of the results — and I think it’s interesting that rock and role, spelled very differently, really make a difference. And I applaud your creativity in the research design. And how fun. I mean, it sounds like your lab looked like a kindergarten art center, but it really made some interesting difference.

I want to stay on the conversation of nonhuman things because I hear that you’ve looked into the impact of assigning gender to technology, things like Siri and Alexa. But what did you find and what can we take away from your work on this assignment of gender to technology, especially in the world of AI and ChatGPT?

Ashley Martin: Technology is being increasingly anthropomorphized as technology is fulfilling more humanlike roles, more social roles if you will. We’re seeing it viewed with more humanlike qualities. From chatbots to virtual assistants, technology is being created in humanlike ways. And with the study that I just talked about, we realize this interesting phenomenon is gender is really facilitating the process of seeing something as human. And so, how is that going to affect the way in which we interact with gendered versus nongendered technology.

And one reason it’s important to explore the relationship is actually because gender stereotypes in technology are very harmful. So, when we imbue Siri and Alexa with a female name and a female voice, what we’re doing is reifying these stereotypes and roles of women, that women are more helpful and they’re kind and they’re caring, which are actually quite problematic. But the results of Amelia and I’s rock study, what it really showed us is actually gender is this humanizing force that allows people to interact with nonhuman things as if they’re human.

And so, we looked at that very question in the study that you’re talking about where we thought that gender might provide a way to feel more attached or connected to our anthropomorphized technology. And so, we looked at this in a number of ways.

One was through Amazon reviews.

And we found that with robotic vacuums, for example, of when people anthropomorphized those robotic vacuums and gave them a gender, they saw them as more humanlike, and they used more affiliative language when they talked about it, so they used words like “I loved this product,” “This is my friend,” they gave it a name, they really liked the product, and they gave it a higher rating. So, that was an interesting finding.

And so, we decided to test it more experimentally where we looked at voice assistants, autonomous vehicles. And what we found was even just using a pronoun, so describing a car a she versus a he versus not describing it with a pronoun at all, we find that people feel more attached to gendered technology in part because they see it as more humanlike.

And so, really that study unearthed this paradox of gender where gender’s problematic — it’s reifying some really problematic stereotypes — but it’s also this humanizing force that allows us to see something as more human. And so, there’s really a tension between amplifying these gender stereotypes and also promoting anthropomorphism.

Matthew Abrahams: I see this happen all the time where people give gendered associations with things that aren’t real. I was in a company recently where the conference rooms were all named for women, and that’s interesting. And we actually on this show when I interviewed ChatGPT, we put the typed responses into a voice simulator. And we had to choose what voice do we use, and we consciously chose a female voice because we thought it sounded less threatening than male voice. So, you’re making me question decisions I make and decisions I see all the time, so thank you for that. It’s very provocative.

You did some work on the difference between identity aware and identity blind approaches to race and gender. Can you define what is meant by these two approaches, and what did you find, and what recommendations come from that research?

Ashley Martin: Yeah, I’m really glad you brought up this research because it actually builds on the importance of gender. So, this is really outlining the problems with gender. And so, to answer your question about defining identity awareness and blindness, so the formal definition is these are ideologies around how to best approach differences in diverse settings.

To break that down a little bit, there’s really two approaches to navigating diversity. There’s some nuance there, but really they fall into two categories. One is about embracing differences, amplifying differences, recognizing differences, and another is ignoring differences or deemphasizing differences, really focusing on what people have in common. And we’ve seen this a lot in the race literature.

If you’ve heard of colorblindness and multiculturalism, these are, in essence, diversity ideologies. One is saying we should be aware of race differences, we should talk about them, and another is saying actually we shouldn’t, we’re all people, we’re all humans, we’re all Americans. We should just really ignore race in favor of a common identity.

And so, a lot of research — this is not my research — a lot of research, in fact, over a hundred papers, have looked at race diversity ideologies, and a lot of it has found that multiculturalism or this awareness approach is a better strategy. It leads people to feel more included. It allows people to recognize discrimination or unequal opportunities. You really can’t recognize differences in opportunities if you’re not talking about differences. It makes people feel less anxious. It just has a host of positive consequences.

And so, in my work, which was recently published, I looked at the implications of this for gender. So, looking at let’s take the exact same approaches to difference that we’re talking about for race and just apply them to gender. So, is it good to discuss, amplify, emphasize gender differences or minimalize them, deemphasize them in favor of similarities? And what was interesting is I found the exact opposite results for gender compared to race.

So, I actually found that when you tell people to emphasize or amplify gender differences, it’s actually increasing stereotyping, it is related to more bias, less support for diversity policies. So, it’s having this divergent effect. The exact same approach to diversity is having a divergent effect for gender. And why this is happening is because the types of differences that are being evoked for race and gender are actually quite unique.

When you tell people to be aware of race differences, they usually think of things like culture, cultural backgrounds, or they think about experiences, how people are treated, and opportunities, so inequality, discrimination. And these are really helpful differences to be mindful of, and so it leads to all these adaptive outcomes. For women, that’s not really what’s happening, that’s not what people are thinking about. They’re not really thinking about different experiences women face, different opportunities or hurdles that women have to overcome. They’re thinking about stereotypes.

So, they’re thinking, yes, women have all these great qualities like what we were talking about with Siri and Alexa. They’re empathetic and they’re incredibly helpful and they’re good mentors, and they think these are really positive things. Men are dominant and assertive, and sometimes we don’t even like those qualities, but those are the qualities that we associate with leadership. And so, by highlighting these gender differences, we’re actually reifying these stereotypes that end up undermining equality.

And so, you asked what can we do with this? How do organizations end up using this? What advice would I give? And I guess it would be two-fold. One is that I can’t really support monolithic diversity strategies because what I’m finding in my own work is that the exact same approach to diversity where people are told to embrace differences is leading to adaptive outcomes for racial minorities and maladaptive outcomes for women. And so, this is quite problematic. You don’t really want a one size fits all diversity strategy.

And then the second would be to focus on the right types of differences. I think we have broad statements around embracing differences or being aware of differences. And what I’m finding is that people aren’t thinking about the same differences for every group.

And so, I think we want to be aware of differences like discrimination or inequality, and we don’t want to amplify these stereotypes around leadership. And so, perhaps orienting people around which differences we should be discussing and talking about might provide a fruitful avenue for solving problems related to inequality.

Matthew Abrahams: That’s really powerful. What I hear you say is in the diversity, equity and inclusion, the DEI work that people do, including belonging as well, that we need to be more nuanced, that we need to separate out these different aspects versus treating it as one size fits all. And I know in companies I’ve been in and companies I consult in, there’s this go to the diversity training and it treats it all as one thing. And it sounds like it would be much wiser and more equitable in a more nuanced way. I hope everybody listening reflects on that, for sure.

I’d like to turn our attention to some other research you’ve done. You’ve looked specifically at hiring more women into senior leadership rocs. What does this do for organizations in general and well as for women within those organizations?

Ashley Martin: Thanks for bringing up the study. This is with my collaborators: Sandra Matz, Asher Lawson and Imrul Huda. And what we did in this study is we actually looked at organizational language through shareholder documents and investor calls, and we looked how that language changed after hiring a female CEO compared to not.

So, what we found is that stereotypes reflected in language changes after hiring a woman. And women, after being hired into the CEO position, tend to be described in more agentic or leaderlike ways. And so, this very act of hiring a female CEO is actually changing a lot of different organizational language whether it be investor calls or shareholder documents. So, what I took away from this research is actually changing representation can change stereotypes, and that’s reversing the intuition that we have when we go about solving diversity problems.

When we think about DEI programs, implicit bias training, really the goal here is to change people, to change their own stereotypes, to change their own behavior so that we can create a culture that’s more inclusive and end up hiring more women. And what this paper is showing is that actually hiring more women can change the very stereotypes that we’re seeking to mitigate through a lot of these diversity strategies, and it leads to this virtuous cycle.

Matthew Abrahams: So, it sounds to me as if doing both could be really helpful, hiring more women and also continuing to work on the stereotypes. And then all of a sudden you get this multiplier effect.

Ashley Martin: Absolutely. And that goes back to something that you just said, which is DEI programs are incredibly difficult. And if I’ve learned anything, that everything is more complicated and more nuanced than I think I previously knew. And so, I applaud diversity programs and companies that are implementing them, because they’re important, but certainly they are hard, and they are challenging, and they require a lot more nuance than I think that we’re currently giving.

Matthew Abrahams: So, that’s advice to everyone. It’s keep up with the work, but just do the work in a more nuanced, reflective way, and take advantage of your research and that of others, for sure.

I want to move away from your research and into your teaching. You teach a course on managing groups and teams. Can you share two key concepts you cover as well as the role that communication might play in successful team management?

Ashley Martin: Yes. I love this course. So, I think groups and teams are so important. They’re really what makes organizations and the human species successful. We are really a successful species because we’re able to work well in groups. So, this course is a pleasure to teach. We cover a lot of concepts. So, we talk about diversity and hierarchy and process. So, it’s really tough to pick one of my favorite.

I think one topic that covers a lot of different problems is the idea of process loss. So, process loss is really anything that undermines a team’s performance or ability to succeed. And sometimes those problems fall into coordination, so people’s ability to work together, sometimes motivation where people become not willing to put in the effort, and sometimes ability, so we don’t structure teams in ways that allow them to use the talent within them.

And one of the solutions that we talk about is roles. So, it’s really important in teams to have roles, to know who to turn to for what, to know who’s in charge when so that you can effectively focus on your task at hand. And so, that’s one thing that I think is really important and I try to cover in my class.

And it also leads to your second question here, which is we talk a lot about roles in communication, and that’s very important. So, in order to effectively communicate, there are different roles you can have and you can use. And so, we talk about the four-player model, which is essentially breaking down actions of communications and teams.

And so, there were four possible acts that one can use in a team when they’re communicating. One is a movement where someone initiatives something, they have an idea, they recommend something. So, that’s move. And there’s support where someone amplifies something that the mover has said, they support it, they reify the intention. There’s also opposition where someone says, “I disagree. I think we should take a step back.” And then there’s reflection where people reflect back what’s going on as a team or some of the dynamics that are happening.

And so, in order for effective communication to occur, we often recommend that all of these actions are equally represented in the team. So, you need enough movement to have momentum towards a certain path, you need support to create cohesion in our team to make people feel like they like each other, you also need opposition so that you’re not blindly moving down the wrong path, and you need reflection to create collective intelligence so that teams can understand how they’re working together and do better on the next task.

So, not only do those four acts need to be equally represented in a team dynamic or conversation, but they should also be equally represented in terms of an individual. So, you want to make sure that you’re engaging in all four of these acts. If you get stuck in a role where let’s say you’re the opposer, you’re always saying, “I don’t want to do this,” or “I don’t think this is a good idea,” you might just be seen as the curmudgeonly person who’s disagreeable rather than the person who’s bringing up actually a very good problem or something that people should pay attention to.

And so, in sum, I think the class highlights the importance of different roles, and those roles could be the leadership roles, it could be your role on a team and how you contribute, and they could also be the roles that you play in creating effective communication.

Matthew Abrahams: You did my job of summarizing very well, thank you. You’re supporting. One of the things that I was thinking of as you were articulating roles and in those different movements, I think it would be beneficial for everybody to reflect on a recent team interaction they had, and think about what role were you playing, what roles were others playing, where were you over indexed, you had too many people doing one thing, and where were you missing. And then do exactly the same thing with the communication that happened.

I often talk about — and listeners have heard me say this — that we need to reflect on the communication that we have in our lives in order to change it. Otherwise, we’re doing that definition of insanity: same thing over and over again expecting different results. And you gave us some very interesting tools and ways of breaking that down, and thank you for that. I think that all of us could benefit from reflecting on the roles we had and the moves we and others make.

Well, Ashley, before we end, I’d love for you to answer the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me. Are you up for that?

Ashley Martin: Absolutely.

Matthew Abrahams: All right. Here we go. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Ashley Martin: Don’t be afraid to use silence. I like this advice, it’s actually thinking of it on the spot, but I think silence is a powerful tool. I think oftentimes when we’re communicating, we’re afraid of it, and we try to fill gaps and voids in conversation. But I also think that prevents us from listening, from being able to engage, and also to exude an executive presence. The most effective communicators I know are really the ones who are comfortable with silence. They let the room speak. They summarize what’s going on and engage with what’s going on because they’re able to hold space for that.

Matthew Abrahams: Did I wait long enough to prove the point? The power of silence is very real. It signals so many things. It signals comfort, it signals listening, it invites reflection. It’s a powerful tool, and it’s one, as you rightly mentioned, I believe, people don’t focus on. Makes us feel very uncomfortable.

Question number two: who’s a communicator that you admire and why?

Ashley Martin: I would say Deb Gruenfeld. She’s my colleague here at the GSB, and I just love watching her communicate. She uses silence so well. She is a perfect example of someone who really is so powerful and doesn’t need to talk all the time. When I came into the classroom and I started teaching MBAs, I did this thing where I would come up to the front of the class and I would clap and say, “Hey, listen up, I’m here,” and try to get their attention in that way. And I would think that I needed to talk, to be the one who’s sharing information and teaching them something.

And then I watched Deb teach, and she just comes up to the front of the classroom and she’s silent, and she waits for people to stop talking and engage with her. She was really able to hold space for other people to talk. She really listens. And there’s such power in using those tools to communicate. So, I really admire the way she does it. I’m still learning to do it as well as Deb — I’m not even close — but I’ve learned a lot from her about communication.

Matthew Abrahams: So, Deb is a wonderful person and a fantastic teacher, and she was one of our early guests. So, anybody wanting to listen to the way in which Deb communicates, please go back and listen to that episode. It was all about power and nonverbal presence. It was fascinating.

All right. Question number three: what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Ashley Martin: The words I would use are listen, engage, and express.

Matthew Abrahams: So, we’ve talked a little bit about listening with silence. Tell me more about engage and express.

Ashley Martin: I think engaging comes from listening, so you need to do that first. But really hearing what people are saying and engaging with those particular questions and those particular problems, I think sometimes — at least they used to — have setpoints that I wanted to communicate. And oftentimes I was missing what people actually cared about or what they actually wanted to know, and there was a better entry point for me to do that if I really took in what they were saying and tried to engage on that level. So, that’s where that piece of advice comes from.

And then express is going against that advice in some ways. It’s engaging, but if there is something at the end of that that you still want to communicate or you still want to say that either violates the room or what people want to engage with, I think that’s still important to communicate because there should be a message that you want to transmit and for people to hear and listen to and leave with.

Matthew Abrahams: So, in essence, you needed to share your voice to share your opinion even if it’s not what was expected. I like it. I’m a big fan of trying to remember things. So, it’s EEL. It’s express, engage, and listen.

Ashley Martin: I’m glad you said that. I was hoping for three Es; it didn’t happen, but you know.

Matthew Abrahams: I think it works. I think it works. Well, Ashley, it was a true pleasure having you here. I learned so much. I learned that some of the things that I did and my children did as kindergartners can actually enlighten us academically, that nuance is important when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, and really reflecting on our roles and the type of communication we have in teams is so important. Thank you so much, and I appreciate the teachings you provided us with.

Ashley Martin: Oh, thank you so much. It was so fun to be here.

Matthew Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, and please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

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