Thursday, 17 August 2017

Where are the Robots for Girls? We found some, but not enough

We see a lot of programmable robots for children and beginners at Tech Age Kids. It's an exciting time for educational STEM and STEAM products. But we can't help but spot that most of the robots are blue and lots of them have male names. The majority are not very appealing to girls.

Now you can argue that blue doesn't have to be a girl's colour, it's an arbitrary cultural code, and anyway, lots of girls like blue and lots don't. But it's clear that blue is a marketing shorthand to indicate that 'this product is suitable for boys.'

We have found some robots that appeal to girls, but nowhere near as many as we would like to see given the number of programmable robots that are available.

When I first spotted the trend I wondered if it was just a coincidence, but the evidence is overwhelming. I feel like I'm in a groundhog day style cycle of conversations like this:

Me: "Why is your robot blue and called Albert, blue is marketing speak for 'this is for boys' and Albert is a boy's name, your product isn't very girl-friendly."

Them: "Blue was the cheapest colour plastic, we showed some kids and they liked it. Alfred can be a girl's name too. Girls love our product, we even put some girls in the photos."

(If any companies or brands recognise themselves in the above discussions, it isn't just you, we've had lots of similar discussions.)

Sometimes it's red-and-black, or green-and-black which are also easily identifiable as products for boys.

Is it that companies are terrified that if their product isn't clearly identifiable as 'for boys' then people won't buy it for boys and that will affect their sales considerably? That might be true if the product was clearly identifiable as 'for girls', but surely it's possible to create more robots that have a gender neutral appeal?

Maybe companies are looking to see what the market leaders are doing and then copying their colour scheme to be on the safe side and save on market research.

There are studies that show that blue is the favourite colour for men and women. But if you look at the research more deeply you find that "The mean hue preference curves for males and females differ significantly. The average female preference rises steeply to a sustained peak in the reddish-purple region, and falls rapidly in the greenish-yellow region, whereas the male preference is shifted towards blue-green and less pronounced." source So actually, yes, women do prefer colours with blue in them, but when combined with red. To my eye, once you add red to blue you get purple. 'Blue' also encompasses a huge range of colours. I'm not a particular fan of blue or green, but I really like Teal. Shades of colour are really important. If companies are justifying their choice with 'blue is the world's favourite colour' that seems too simplistic.

A few products have chose a teal / azure blue which seems to be more popular with girls than other shades. But that doesn't give us much in the way of variety. And some people will still just see them as 'blue'.

I want to be very clear that I'm not asking the industry for pink robots. I don't actually think that we need different tech for girls and boys. We know that it often adds expense to produce more colours, and offering alternative colours often means that all the promotional images still feature the favoured colour scheme. I would like more robots to be customisable with stickers and accessories so that kids can make their own decisions about how their robots should look.

At a recent event, we attracted a lot of girls with our micro:bit in Wonderland projects and I had the chance to discuss tech issues with them. A few mentioned that coding at school is "games programming and robots - boys stuff." We'll have to pick on the games topic another time, but robots as boys stuff, that's concerning.

Robots are very much girl's stuff. We seriously need women to be involved in the future of robotics otherwise we might not get the best future (have you see West World!). I've previously written about why young people should learn about robotics.

I'm concerned that young people aren't finding out what robotics is really about. A lot of the issues are around how we, as humans, want to interact with robot pets and companions, how we want humans and robots to work together at home and work and how robots should be involved in elder care.

If you were the kind of person to think that boys are better suited to engineering (nonsense!) then you'd probably be the kind of person that thinks that girls are better suited to these ethical and emotional issues.

The truth is these issues are best tackled by people who have a thorough understanding of technical and ethical issues.

Virtual assistants are becoming mainstream, did you notice they're all female? Interesting. So those robots can be female. Are kids tech toy manufacturers avoiding girl robots to avoid the association with subservient female robot assistants? I doubt it.

We're seeing lots of white home robot companions appearing, they all look pretty similar. But the ones that are designed for kids to learn with seem to end up blue or blue and white. Or sometimes a choice of colour but with blue as the colour in all the photos.

Does something as trivial as colour really matter? We think it does. When we started setting up our stand with lots of purple including purple laptops we got more girls than boys (previously we would always see lots more boys even though Elbrie and I are female.) So from our experience, colour does have a big influence.

Robots for Girls

There are some tech companies who have managed to create products that appeal to girls and boys, or to girls specifically. I've taken a look to find robots that are readily available, not blue or using other masculine color-schemes, and not featuring a male character.

Here's what I came up with:

Gender Neutral Robots

  1. Sphero Mini is a new smaller programmable robot from Sphero. We're really pleased to see that they've broadened out form their signature blue to offer the Sphero Mini in a range of bright colours and plain white. Yes, there's a pink one! But there's also nice bright fruity orange and a lime green that should appeal widely, and the blue in the new range is a bright turquoise.

    The size and cute accessories really make this robot stand out as gender neutral and it shows that it really doesn't take much for manufacturers to design a product that won't alienate a lot of girls.

    Because the Sphero Mini uses the well established Sphero EDU platform, it's not just a gimmick, there's real educational value and play value here.
  2. OzoBot Bit and Evo come in Crystal White - these robots are cute and gender neutral. Yes, the lights are set to blue in the main promo photo for OzoBot Evo but they are RGB lights. Unfortunately, the recent trend for OzobBot is for tie-ins with male characters. 
  3. MiroBot - this is a white wooden drawing robot that can be programmed with Python.
  4. Edison - an orange LEGO compatible robot which is affordable and can be programmed with a choice of languages. You could argue that Edison might appeal a bit more to boys with its colour scheme, but we're struggling to find options here!
  5. Sparki - a high quality educational robot which has lots of educational material to teach robotics concepts. 
These robots have a strong educational focus. Being gender neutral has always been important in schools. 

Robots for Girls

  1. SmartGurlz Siggy - a programmable moped that comes with a doll. There are a range of different dolls with different appearances and different coloured mopeds. 
  2. Dance Code Belle - a programmable dancing doll for younger children (coming soon.)

    This programmable doll (see, it doesn't have to be a robot as such!) has been designed for girls (and boys who love Belle, we hope) aged 5+. We love the idea as it combines choreography, which has a lot in common with algorithm design, with coding.

    Dance Code Belle is a refreshing alternative to just designing robots for boys and then making a pink version.
  3. mBot Pink - the mBot in pink instead of its usual blue. This is a fantastic robot with Scratch integration and some girls like pink, but not all of them!
These are robots designed for the home market and feature female characters.

I think it's important to point out that while some girls will love products like this, others would rather have the robots that are marketed towards boys. 

Teal, Azure and Turquoise Robots

There are some robots that while blue, use a Teal/Azure/Turquoise colour that seems to have more girl-appeal than pale blue, royal blue or navy. 

  1. Dash and Dot - these robots for younger kids are seriously cute, their rounded design also helps them to appear friendly and fairly gender neutral. 
  2. LEGO Boost - we do think that this kit is still biased towards boys in its colour scheme and the model that you can create, but it's better than most of the alternatives. 


When you consider how many programmable robots for children are on the market, this is a pretty poor showing. 

So, we can't say there are no programmable robots designed for girls. But there are loads of programmable robots for kids on the market and the majority look like they have been designed to appeal to boys. 

This doesn't make sense. Robots are very much a girl thing. Robots are developing into virtual assistants, home companions and electronic pets and workers at home, work and in hospitals and the service industry. 

Girls and women need to participate in the important decisions that need to be made around how AI and robotics develops. Should all voice assistants have female personalities while programmable robots for kids are male? Surely not.

Girls should have the opportunity to learn about robotics without feeling like they are doing 'boy stuff' and being bought boys toys. Having some girl-specific products, especially where they feature girl characters, makes sense, just as it makes sense to have some products with boy characters (though we're not convinced that these have to be separate products rather than variants.)

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