Gender concerns in smart home technology

Monday, 29 April, 2019

Gender concerns in smart home technology

Early adopters of smart home technologies have reported they reinforce gender stereotypes and could pose security threats to women, according to a study.

Research by Monash University, RMIT and Intel Corporation found smart home technology continues to be associated with expressions of masculinity, and there are concerns that it could worsen domestic violence.

The study examined smart home technology adoption for 31 high-income (in excess of $156,000) households across Australia, with participants mostly aged 35–54 years. It looked at their experiences in relation to three concepts central to Intel’s ambient computing vision for the home: protection, productivity and pleasure.

While there were a number of benefits associated with the technology — including the convenience of smart lighting, protecting the home and its occupants via security cameras and providing aesthetic pleasure — the study found it “failed to deliver on many of their promises for effortless and easy living”. This is partly due to poor understanding of household diversity and different people’s desires and needs.

“In the current smart home market, it is mainly men who are designing and selling smart home technologies, and also mainly men who are responsible for setting up, maintaining and introducing smart home to other householders,” said Associate Professor Yolande Strengers from Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology. “This affects the types of devices that get designed, and their potential benefits and usefulness to other householders. In particular, women on the whole are currently underrepresented and underserved by the industry.”

Consistent with gender stereotypes, the study found participants noted the increased ‘digital housekeeping’ needed to keep smart home devices running. This is predominantly done by men, who get pleasure from setting up and playing with these devices.

One busy CEO and single mum also explained she used her Google Home’s scheduling, voice calendar entries, shopping lists and timers to help coordinate her business, housekeeping and parenting duties. However, she was one of many women who were frustrated that digital voice assistants tend to be female. Study co-author Dr Jenny Kennedy, from RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre, said: “She had deliberately changed their voices to a man’s to challenge gendered stereotypes of feminised cleaning and administrative roles and avoid reinforcing these assumptions with her two sons.”

Privacy and security risks of these devices were another key concern for participants. Strengers explained, “Some householders were concerned that these devices could be used to invade the privacy of others without their knowledge or consent, and potentially exacerbate domestic violence situations by, for example, using a smart lock to restrict access to the house.”

Households reported that the technology saved them time in relation to work, cleaning and lighting, and even derived pleasure from using these devices, particularly smart lighting.

“The potential for uptake in smart home technology is huge, but there are also a number of important gender concerns that need to be explicitly considered by the human computer interaction design community in the further development of these devices,” Strengers said.

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