Sign up FAST! Login

Why Aren't There More Women Futurists?


Stashed in: Women, Awesome, Siri, The Future, @louisck, @elonmusk, James Bond, SciFi!, Sergey Brin, XX, Ray Kurzweil!, @emilialahti, The Future

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Another field that needs women to bring balance.

In the future, everyone’s going to have a robot assistant. That’s the story, at least. And as part of that long-running narrative, Facebook just launched its virtual assistant. They’re calling it Moneypenny—the secretary from the James Bond Films. Which means the symbol of our march forward, once again, ends up being a nod back. In this case, Moneypenny is a send-up to an age when Bond’s womanizing was a symbol of manliness and many women were, no matter what they wanted to be doing, secretaries.

Why can’t people imagine a future without falling into the sexist past? Why does the road ahead keep leading us back to a place that looks like the Tomorrowland of the 1950s? Well, when it comes to Moneypenny, here’s a relevant datapoint: More than two thirds of Facebook employees are men. That’s a ratio reflected among another key group: futurists.

Both the World Future Society and the Association of Professional Futurists are headed by women right now. And both of those women talked to me about their desire to bring more women to the field. Cindy Frewen, the head of the Association of Professional Futurists, estimates that about a third of their members are women. Amy Zalman, the CEO of the World Future Society, says that 23 percent of her group’s members identify as female. But most lists of “top futurists” perhaps include one female name. Often, that woman is no longer working in the field.

For a long time the future has belonged to people who have not had to struggle.

Some people think of science fiction authors as futurists, while others don’t. Some members of the APF include singularity researchers, others don’t want to. Some people lump transhumanists into a broader category of futurists. Others don’t. Here are some of the people popularly known as futurists: Aubrey de Gray, the chief researcher at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation; Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX; Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google; Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google. They don’t necessarily belong to a particular society—they might not even self-identify as futurists!—but they are driving the conversation about the future—very often on stages, in public, backed by profitable corporations or well-heeled investors.

Which means the media ends up turning to Brin and Musk and de Gray and Kurzweil to explain what is going to happen, why it matters, and ultimately whether it’s all going to be okay. The thing is: The futures that get imagined depend largely on the person or people doing the imagining.

Why are there so few women? Much of it comes down to the same reasons there are so few women in science and technology, fields with direct links to futurism (which has a better ring to it than “strategic foresight,” the term some futurists prefer).

“That whole idea of creating these creatures that are human-like and then have them be in servitude to us, that is not my fantasy.”

Any time someone points out a gender or racial imbalance in a field (or, most often, the combination of the two) a certain set of people ask: Who cares? The future belongs to all of us—or, ultimately, none of us—why does it matter if the vast majority of futurists are white men? It matters for the same reasons diversity drives market growth: because when only one type of person is engaged in asking key questions about a specialty—envisioning the future or otherwise—they miss a entire frameworks for identifying and solving problems. The relative absence of women at Apple is why the Apple Health kit didn’t have period tracking until a few months ago, and why a revolutionary artificial heart can be deemed a success even when it doesn’t fit 80 percent of women.

Which brings us back to Moneypenny, and all the other virtual assistants of the future. There are all sorts of firms and companies working to build robotic servants. Chrome butlers, chefs, and housekeepers. But the fantasy of having an indentured servant is a peculiar one to some. “That whole idea of creating robots that are in service to us has always bothered me,” says Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author. “I’ve always sided with the robots. That whole idea of creating these creatures that are human-like and then have them be in servitude to us, that is not my fantasy and I find it highly problematic that it would be anyone’s.”

Or take longevity, for example. The idea that people could, or even should, push to lengthen lifespans as far as possible is popular. The life-extension movement, with Aubrey de Gray as one (very bearded) spokesman, has raised millions of dollars to investigate how to extend the lifespan of humans. But this is arguably only an ideal future if you’re in as a comfortable position as his. “Living forever only works if you’re a rich vampire from an Anne Rice novel, which is to say that you have compound interest,” jokes Ashby. “It really only works if you have significant real-estate investments and fast money and slow money.” (Time travel, as the comedian Louis C.K. has pointed out, is another thing that is a distinctly white male preoccupation—going back in time, for marginalized groups, means giving up more of their rights.)

So, should we asexualize everything to make sure we're not being sexist in some way?

No. But we need to be careful when we read about visions for the future.

Because those visions might be more homogenous than we realize. 

Why not elevate the field of "assisting" instead?

That depends on the software engineers knowing what women want in an assistant. 

So James Bond's female boss.

Yes. A wise choice given the backlash over the original naming.

Or the initial of Moneypenny, pretty smart choice haha.

I didn't realize that till you said it. Very clever, Facebook.

You May Also Like: