Female-voiced digital assistants are perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Ask your phone, Echo, or computer something. Or call your bank and talk to the automated menu. I’ll wait.
Whatever you asked, a synthesized version of a woman likely answered you, polite and deferential, pleasant no matter the tone or topic and perhaps came complete with a submissive or even flirtatious manner.
That's because almost all of the artificial intelligence voice assistants (Hi Siri, Hola Alexa) available on our devices are female - in name, voice and personality. While she might come in handy when looking for a Pad Thai recipe or wondering what time Coronation Street is on at - Alexa, Siri and co. are actually perpetuating the kind of archaic gender stereotypes we’ve been spending decades trying to smash.
Furthering proving this to be the case, a recent study by UNESCO says female voice assistants send the message that women should always be “obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command”.
"The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it. It honours commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility. In many communities, this reinforces commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment,” the report outlined."
Possibly most disturbing is the fact that these compliant, often flirty voice assistants are programmed to be deferential when faced with abuse. In fact, the report is named “I’d Blush If I Could” after the submissive response Siri makes if you call her a “slut” (Alexa responds to the same insult with “well, thanks for the feedback”).
Almost half a billion people use Apple's Siri and over 100 million people have invited Amazon's Alexa into their home (not to mention the host of variants on the market) making this message of demeaning ever the more troublesome.
Fictional male voices do exist, of course, but today they are simply far less common. HAL-9000 is the most famous male-voiced Hollywood AI – a malevolent sentient computer released into the public imagination 51 years ago in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So why is it that the patriarchy’s far-reaching tendencies now extend to AI voice assistants? It’s all down to the startling gender imbalance in the tech industry itself.
UNESCO says women make up just 6% of software developers and 12% of AI researchers. Plus, they’re 13 times less likely to file an ICT (information, communication and technology) patent than their male counterparts.
Although women now have more opportunities in computer science, more are disappearing from the field as they advance in their careers, a trend known as the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon.
To even out these numbers and keep women in tech, we need education and training that is gender inclusive. The report lists several recommendations for the tech industry, including that digital assistants become gender-neutral and are programmed to “discourage” slurs.
For now, it’s time for Siri to clock off.