Sophia, Cassandra, Alexa and Us…

women

The title of this piece resonates with the air of a girls’ day out, or to think in more adventurous terms, a fun night out! Though I am planning something next week with two of my buddies, this post has nothing to do with a ladies outing! The woman in me simply made me share my random thoughts on a matter which I believe members of my fraternity will be able to relate to and appreciate.

Way back in 1988, I had gone for a debating tournament where the topic was: “The world today is a world of women”. Not being fortunate enough to be the owner of an elephantine memory, I cannot recall, almost three decades later, all the arguments that I had presented in favor of the motion. But a couple of examples I clearly remember citing were of Maggie Thatcher who made a hat-trick with her prime ministership and president Corazon Aquino who restored democracy in the Philippines after toppling the authoritarian rule of Ferdinand E. Marcos. What I distinctly recollect is how in my youthful spirit I was indulging in blissful ignorance, celebrating the thought of women ruling the world on all fronts in a few years to come. I did not realize at all that thirty years down the line, we would still be talking about equality and gender bias.

An interesting Washington Post article, “Women, the World’s Greatest Emerging Market”, that I recently happened to catch up on, with an energizing cup of coffee in my hand, discussed the matter at length. The piece made its argument in favor of ways to close the gender inequality. It pointed out that although we have come a long way since those days when men exclusively encroached the territory of business and finance, there is still a lot to be desired. Globally and in the USA, a very low percentage of women are in the helm of management. Women entrepreneurs have to wage a hard battle to receive venture capital funding. The article rests on the premise that both societies and companies will have a stagnation in growth if they do not take the adequate steps to foster and nurture economic parity for women. When it comes to sustainable investing, where environmental and social factors come into play, women pay more attention to such factors than their male counterparts. Therefore, as their economic visibility increases, they facilitate healthy, responsible growth for businesses. Recognizing the tremendous potential of women in the economic scenario, the article is tinged with an optimistic flavor as it highlights how momentum for gender parity is pacing up, with venture capitalist firms coming up to finance woman entrepreneurs, companies having gender diversity programs, and those like EY (formerly Ernst and Young) relying on the power of mentors to guide women who show promise in their careers.

As we talk about rights and gender equality, there comes a real-life story never to be heard of before. Modeled after Audrey Hepburn and developed by Hong Kong-based company Hansen Robotics, the humanoid robot Sophia has been hitting the news headlines quite a bit lately. Not only did she get the laughter ball rolling in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose, she raised many an eyebrow after she was conferred honorary citizenship by Saudi Arabia. Be it a publicity stunt or otherwise, the sad irony lies in the fact that this is a country which denies women their basic human rights. So is there any ground for applause? Certainly not! Rather than indulging in such absurd drama by conferring nationality on a robot, Saudi Arabia needs to learn to give its female citizens the respect they rightfully deserve.

The male child preference syndrome is generally believed to afflict East and South Asian countries. Surprisingly, the response was not anything different among Americans, according to a 2011 Gallup poll. When asked whether they would prefer a boy or a girl if they could have only one child, the preference for a boy stood at 48% as opposed to 28% for a girl. The rest of the respondents had no preference or opinion on that matter. Hypothetical responses to a poll question cannot be conclusive, but nevertheless it does speak about the human psyche. The refreshing news in this direction is that recent research conducted by economists at Cornell University, University of Alabama, and Pittsburg University on the basis of 2008-2013 census data reveals that American parents no longer prefer boys as they did earlier. With the impact women are gradually beginning to make in the workplace, the sexist belief of sons being better able to support parents in their old age is slowly waning away. It is important that this mindset not be just confined to USA or a handful of countries. It is highly desired that with education and awareness, light be shed all across the planet for parents to have the same level of acceptance for both boys and girls.

It will be nothing less than opening a Pandora’s box to discuss women’s issues and problems that plague the world. So I prefer to call it a day on a lighter mood. Why technology has a preference for female names is worth pondering. The man of the house is frequently heard mentioning Cassandra in his business meetings. Not being a techie, it was only after a very long time that I realized that Cassandra is the name of a database management system in the computing world. A CNN piece titled “Why Computer Voices Are Mostly Female?” discussed how scientific studies have shown that people find women’s voices more pleasing than men’s. This trend dates all the way back to World War II when navigation devices used female voices in airplane cockpits.

A six-year-old stumped me with a question. She asked me if women were more intelligent than men. Sometimes, kids leave us speechless, and I was definitely at a loss for words on this instance. Totally floored by Amazon’s personal assistant that plays her favorite songs, the first-grader reasoned out that had men been smarter, the device would have been named Alex and not Alexa! As much as I wanted to say “Here’s to girl power!”, I did not want to fish in troubled waters. As to whether you want to agree or disagree with this rationale presented by the little one, I would say that the choice is yours!


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