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Tokenistic Representation

Now, we’d like to introduce you to two different examples, both of which have been critiqued for failing to achieve meaningful representation.

Now, we’d like to introduce you to two different examples, both of which have been critiqued for failing to achieve meaningful representation.

Starbucks – Every name’s a story

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

The Challenge of Representation

In February 2020 Starbucks released an advert that was widely applauded for its thoughtful depiction of a young trans masculine person’s journey to change their name. The advert was awarded the Chanel 4 Diversity in Advertising award and backed by Mermaids, a charity and advocacy organisation that supports gender variant and transgender youth in the UK. Starbucks pledged to fundraise £100,000 for Mermaids through the sale of cookies and to create a safe and inclusive environment for trans people in their stores (1).

Starbucks Misrepresented Themselves

Praise for the advert began to subside when multiple accounts from past and present employees sought to hold Starbuck accountable for not living up to its promise of being trans-inclusive. Maddie Wade sued the company for discrimination in 2018, stating that her manager at the time had treated her in a hostile manner and repeatedly misgendered her. Maddie’s lawyer stated that the “company’s attempt at marketing their position on inclusion and gender equality is both phoney and hypocritical to their own employees who have faced discrimination while working in their stores” (2). Jamison Schwartz and Elaine Cao spoke of their issues in trying to get gender-affirming surgeries through the companies health insurance plan, even after Starbucks explicitly stated trans people could access such care (3). Maddy, Jamison and Elaine were some of many employees who came forward, all accusing the company of performing inclusion for publicity, without practising it internally.

Q The Genderless Voice

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Commissioned by Virtue, a for-profit spinoff of media company Vice, Q The Genderless voice was billed as “the first genderless voice aimed at ending gender bias in AI assistants”. To create the voice the team began by recording the voices of 6 people who identify as male, female, transgender or nonbinary. These recordings were then presented to a group of over 4,600 people who were asked to rate the voice on a scale of 1 (male) to 5 (female). From here, the team were able to identify a frequency range that they deemed to be gender-neutral. In an interview for Wired the sound designer Nis Norgaard stated that the final voice is not an amalgamation of different recordings but a single voice that was pitched to the desired frequency (4).

Inadequate Representation

In their research, Cami states that Q, while well-intentioned, perpetuates the idea that trans voices are neither male nor female, rather than acknowledging that trans and non-binary voices come in many frequencies. In its goal of creating a genderless voice Q represents the needs of trans and non-binary people as “a monolith population”. Cami notes that by only using representation as a way to solve the problems faced by trans and non-binary people within voice AI, Q fails to tackle more pressing issues such as public safety, privacy and access to healthcare. Cami’s research concluded that a genderless voice option was relatively low in trans peoples priorities when engaging with voice assistants and that Q, in particular, was “an inadequate form of representation”.

The Need for Meaningful Representation

While criticism of these examples is necessary it’s important to understand that both the Starbucks Ad and Q are well-intentioned efforts for inclusion. Trans representation is so important and the value of seeing such representation creates a positive image for trans youth to connect to. What both of those examples show, however, is that if meaningful representation isn’t considered at every stage, from how we organise our teams, to the cultures we create in our workplaces and how we eventually market our products and services then efforts such as these run the risk of being tokenistic and creating more problems.

Efforts Towards Representation

Some companies have made a positive effort to respond to criticisms around a lack of representation and use their power to create change. In 2019 the Nike London flagship store began to use mannequins that were representative of a wide range of feminine body types and physical abilities, a move which was widely applauded (5). In 2019 Microsoft began to create gaming controllers which would allow for people with physical disabilities to play their video games, culminating in the release of the XBOX Adaptive Controller (6).

In 2018 Proctor and Gamble, one of the largest consumer goods corporations in the world ran an advert in the United States called “The Talk” which depicts African American mothers across multiple decades having difficult conversations with their children about race (7). In the summer of 2020, following the global Black Lives Matter movement, the company’s chief brand officer then leveraged their advertising power to hold media organisations accountable, stating they would pull their adverts should they find their adverts being placed in relation to any content which is “hateful, denigrating or discriminatory” (8).

What are your thoughts on the points raised here?


  1. Starbucks, 2020. What’s Your Name, Starbucks Mermaids Cookie.
  2. Reiss Smith, 2020. Starbucks accused of ‘hypocrisy’ over trans advert by an employee who quit after being misgendered, Pink News.
  3. Starbucks, 2018. “They are life-saving” Starbucks offers expanded benefits for trans people
  4. Matt Simon, 2019. The genderless digital voice the world needs right now, Wired.
  5. Chelsea Ritschel, 2019 Nike uses plus-size mannequins ins store, The Independent.
  6. Microsoft, Xbox Adaptive Controller.
  7. Procter and Gamble, 2017. The Talk.
  8. Matthew Valentine, 2020. P&G threatens to pull ad spend if platforms don’t take ‘systemic action’ over racial equality, Marketing Week.
© Creative Computing Institute
This article is from the free online

Gender-Inclusive Approaches in Technology

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