Can an icon be gender free?

Isabella Hübscher

By Isabella Hübscher15 juillet 2022

The topics of icons and gender are strongly linked, but both are evolving today, together. The conference, “Can an icon be gender free?” organised by Luxury Tribune and the Swiss Center for Luxury Research, together with Audemars Piguet at the University of St. Gallen, explored the themes of the icon and gender bias in watchmaking and artificial intelligence.

The conference took place at the University of St. Gallen. Felicitas Morhart, Nick Mathot, Sylvie Buhagiar Roche, Michael Friedman and Cristina D'Agostino (from left to right) took part in the panel discussion (DR)

The conference, « Can an icon be gender free?” organised by Luxury Tribune and the Swiss Center for Luxury Research, together with Audemars Piguet, explored the world of icons and genders. Throughout history, all industries have been embodied by icons, however, often associated with a specific gender. But the world is evolving. Is gender fluidity changing their creative process today? To what extent do gender biases and stereotypes influence these topics? And what can we expect in the future? Together with three industry experts, Michael Friedman, Head of Complications at Audemars Piguet, Sylvie Buhagiar Roche, business lawyer and photographer, and Nick Mathot, expert in tech and artificial intelligence, these questions were discussed during the conference, moderated by Cristina D'Agostino, founder and editor-in-chief of Luxury Tribune, and Félicitas Morhart, founder of SCLR, live from the University of St Gallen.

The first ever Royal Oak "Jumbo", 1972 (DR)

Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Ferrari 250 GTO, or even the Royal Oak have one thing in common. They are all cultural icons, with an emblematic dimension, referring to ideals of society. However, by observing history, one can see that icons arise and die over generations. Today, society is facing disruptive changes, such as dematerialisation, digitalisation, liquid consumption and gender fluidity. Considering these points, how can we describe an icon today? “When we speak about icons, we talk about something we recognise in real time, something that culture agrees to, and that has the potential to cut through a timeline for at least two generations”, explained Michael Friedman. “Let’s take the example of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The shows that are on today are the ones that were iconic when they were new, and have thus been able to cut through the timeline and influence broader culture”.

Royal Oak: from disruptor to icon

When the Royal Oak debuted in 1972, it created a new category. (...) But the market was ready.

Michael Friedman, head of complications at audemars piguet

Michael Friedman, head of complications at Audemars Piguet (DR)

After being questioned on the Royal Oak as an icon of the watch industry, which was disruptive at the time of its launch, the horological expert explained: “Until the early 1900s, watches were feminine, and men had pocket watches. However, this shifted during World War I, when more and more strap watches were observed on men. Then, until the 60s, watches tended to be either very utilitarian and masculine, or delicate and feminine.” He further added “When the Royal Oak debuted in 1972, it created a new category. It was a larger watch, 39mm, flat and very angular, which differed from the softer lines previously seen on designs. But the market was ready.  Gerald Genta could only come up with this design after the culture was ready for it. And it came out after the cultural revolution of the late 60s, after the Vietnam War, and after a huge period of protest. These changes were not only observed in watch design, but also other areas such as architecture or car design.” The last point Michael Friedman underlined was that of its controversial material and price. “Steel is a utilitarian material, with no inherent value. But it was hand-finished to such an extent that it became a work of art.”

Coming back to the topic of gender and icons throughout generations, Michael Friedman shared his point of view of the watchmaking industry with regards to gender and age. “We can still do a lot better, in our company as well as in the whole industry. Jasmine Audemars and Jacqueline Dimier have left such a massive impression on the company throughout the decades, that for us femininity is inescapable, and the company is stronger for it. As with regards to young designers, every generation is bringing a new chapter to the ongoing story”.

Stereotypes and their relation to gender

Following, technological expert Nick Mathot analysed gender stereotypes and where they arise from. “It is often about perception. When you meet someone, you make an opinion about them within less than a second. It takes a lot of time to get to know someone, so you take shortcuts. When you lack information on a person, it is much easier to place that person in a group. Gender is an obvious stereotype group”. He further went on to give specific cases. “One type is called fundamental error attribution. An example with regards to gender would be a beautiful and successful woman. Is she successful because she’s beautiful, or because she works hard? Another one is assertiveness backlash. This situation can be explained by a man or a woman speaking loudly. For a man, one would interpret his tone as the one of a leader. A woman can be seen as bossy.”

There is no clear legal basis in the Swiss Law with regards to the protection of gender biases (Shutterstock)

As a successful business woman, lawyer, and photographer, Sylvie Buhagiar added: “I have already had clients who refused to speak to me in a business meeting, and my boss had to intervene to tell them to talk to me, as nobody else would. Additionally, only 17% of people in a board of directors in Switzerland are women, and I don’t feel it will change soon as we do not have a quota”. After being addressed on the topic of gender biases at Audemars Piguet, Michael Friedman explained “It’s not about hiring someone for their gender or their cultural background. Rather, it is about making sure to interview a great number of people to bring in a wide scope of perspectives. We are very conscious of that. Today success is not just about knowledge and communication, but about real connection.  To be able to connect you need the correct number of people.”

Protection against gender biases

First, Nick Mathot gave insights on how technology can help reduce such biases. “Essentially, we are mixing psychology with artificial intelligence. We talk about the ground truth in science, but the ground truth in psychology remains human opinion.” He further explained “You feed information to an algorithm, and it gives a prediction. However, you must fully control input data in order for it to be relevant and precise. Opinion is crowdsourced by experts in these fields, and it is made sure that half of these experts are male, and the other half is female, to cancel out gender biases. Each expert is shown videos of people individually, and they give their expert opinion on personality traits and soft skills. If they more or less agree with each other, the information is put into a computer, and further analysed hundreds of times. Over time, it then becomes independent and gives predictions that experts then use as reference points.”

Although artificial intelligence is making progress with regards to the topic of protection against gender biases, the law in Switzerland seems to be lacking some precise measures. “There is no clear legal basis. Only in the Swiss Constitution, there is article 8.2 which is against discrimination based on sex or way of life. However, since the first of January 2022, you can change your gender on your passport, as well as your name.” concluded Sylvie Buhagiar.

In conclusion, icons and genders are evolving in line with cultural changes and generational renewal. Today, the freedom of expression linked to gender seems to favour a new dynamic, which is also found in the various fields of expression such as fashion, design or watchmaking. The fluidity of gender allows a new fluidity of style.

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