Over the past few years, voice assistants, also known as virtual assistants, have become commonplace, largely in part to the increasingly popular Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. Using their voices only, users can have their virtual assistant play music or TV shows, read recipe directions out loud, give weather updates, and tons of other capabilities. Basically, these assistants are digital administrators that don’t need salaries, healthcare, or benefits of any kind, an easy way to get stuff done without being bogged down by a mobile device. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, as virtual assistants are programmed by largely male software developers, society’s patriarchal structure and subjugation of women is evident in voice assistants, regardless of their lack of physical bodies. But why are virtual assistants so overwhelmingly female, and why does that matter? Let’s find out.
Voice Assistants Are Largely Female
Although voice assistants don’t technically have genders, the majority of them have female voices and names. The origins of their names vary from assistant to assistant, but some are pretty telling. While Amazon Alexa, the most popular voice example, was named after an ancient library in Alexandria, the name of Apple’s Siri means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Norse. Microsoft’s Cortana may have the most interesting name origin of all. Cortana is the name of “synthetic intelligence” in the video game Halo. The problem? She’s projected as a naked woman in the video game. The only neutrally-named popular voice assistant is the Google Assistant, but even that has a female voice.
Of course, none of the assistants will admit to being female (not being human, and all), but they’re often feminized not only in terms of names and voices, but also in terms of speech patterns and personality, according to a study sponsored by the United Nations. For body-less artificially intelligent software, voice assistants say a lot about how society views gender roles.
Sexism Coded In Female Voice Assistants
It turns out that you don’t need a female body to be sexually harassed; as long as you have a female voice, it’ll happen anyway. When being sexually harassed, many voice assistants don’t immediately shut it down.
Alexa seems rather tickled when called hot, while Siri sassily flirts back. I have a problem with people that sexually harass voice assistants, but an even bigger problem with the software developers that created these inappropriate and nonsensical responses.
Aside from their willingness to be harassed despite being incapable of dating or sex, software developers program “Easter eggs” into voice assistants, basically funny responses to specific questions that one has to stumble upon on their own. According to the study, Alexa has Easter egg responses regarding Chuck Norris, Fight Club, and even the Jay-Z song “99 problems”.
Notice the common thread running through these topics? They’re all about men, a male martial artist, a group of male fighters, a male rapper. And that’s not surprising, when you consider that 90% of software developers are male. So why do they give voice assistants female voices in the first place?
Do People Prefer Female Voices?
When asked why their voice assistants are female, many tech companies like Amazon and Apple say that people prefer female voices according to studies. However, no studies are shown as evidence, so I decided to do my own research on the topic. What does science have to say about a universal preference for female voices?
Study One: People Prefer Women’s Voices Overall
It turns out that, like a ton of scientific studies on the same topic, results were mixed. One man who agreed with these tech giants was the late Dr. Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University and the author of “The Man Who Lied To His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships”. In an article in CNN Business, Dr. Nass put it simply, saying,
“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes.”
Simple enough, right? Wrong.
Study Two: People Prefer Women’s Voices For Some Things, Men’s Voices For Others
Oddly, some of Dr. Nass’ earlier work contradicts the above statement, which is pervasive across many articles regarding sexism and voice assistants. In a paper published in the Journal of Social Issues, “Machines and Mindfulness: Social Responses to Computers,” Dr. Nass, along with Youngme Moon, found that preferences varied based on the behavior the speech displays. In their study, they had subjects talk to both male and female voice assistants, both of which said the exact same words. Then, he asked people what he thought of the voice assistants in terms of trust, friendliness, and other factors. Here are just some of his findings:
- People tend to think a male voice is more effective than a female voice while evaluating someone
- People trusted female voices more regarding “feminine” topics like love and relationships, while they trusted male voices more regarding “male” topics about computers
- People preferred praise from male voices rather than female voices
- Both genders rated the female voice as less friendly than the male voice
- Dominant behaviors were better-received from male voices than from female voices.
It turns out that societal stereotypes about gender can also seep into how people judge robots, despite their lack of physical gender.
Dr. Nass’ research was echoed by “Does Social Desirability Bias Favor Humans?”, a paper published by the Indiana University School of Informatics. People preferred a male voice for authoritative statements, while they preferred a female voice for being “helpful”. Even without bodies, voice assistants are still subject to the patriarchal rules that dictate male dominance in society.
Study Three: People Prefer The Voice Of The Opposite Gender
Finally, another study published in PLOS ONE, a scientific journal, found that people preferred the voice of the opposite sex. Clearly, science has not come to a unified decision on gender preference for voice. Some studies say that gender isn’t the only factor that plays into which voice people prefer, but other factors like pitch, breathiness, and the subject the voice is speaking about. Despite all of the conflicting research out there, the majority of voice assistants are still female by default.
Why Voice Assistants Are Female
It’s impossible to pin down one reason why voice assistants are primarily female. Rather, it’s a combination of societal expectations, which influence the software developers who code the assistants in the first place, along with lack of female representation in tech to combat these stereotypes.
Women As Administrators
Despite women’s prominence in the workforce, secretary and administrative assistant roles are still comprised of 94.6% women, according to an article in the Boston Globe. This percentage has been largely unchanged since middle class women left domesticity for jobs outside of the home. In “The Secretary: Invisible Labor in the Workworld of Women,” Mary Anne Wichroski describes the time when women first worked as secretaries,
“The entry of women into the office, resisted at first, was gradually encouraged as women were perceived as compliant, cheerful, and non-competitive for male positions; these assets came to be seen as conducive to the aim of increased efficiency in large business firms.”
The secretary position was typically supportive of a man or a group of men. While women had entered the white collar workforce, they were still given more administrative roles as opposed to executive roles, and paid less on average than their male coworkers. This role was consistent with women’s general role in society, to cook for, clean up after, and in general, take care of the man while he was responsible for larger decisions outside of the home.
Women were just more “suited” to be secretaries, people thought. Domestic skills, along with social skills, translated very well into the secretarial role for women. Plus, their small fingers were better for typing! This was a widespread and completely false belief in the mid-century, according to an article from the Chicago Tribune.
It’s easy to blame the tech companies for their outdated ideas about what women are capable of, but they are part of a larger patriarchal structure which ingrains misogyny into individual minds, regardless of their gender. Rebecca Zorah, Director of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality Social Media Project, said that “I wouldn’t automatically claim any sexism in individual companies’ choices…most decisions are probably the result of market research, so they may be reflecting gender stereotypes that already exist in the general public.”
Lack Of Women In Tech
The prominence of female voice assistants and their problematic language may stem from the lack of female representation in the tech industry. In fact, 94% of software developers are men, according to the United Nations study. While women make up more than half of the United States workforce, they make up less than 20% of tech jobs.
Although the tech industry has expanded exponentially, women actually hold a smaller share of computer science jobs than they did in the 1980s, according to an article from Evia, a woman-led tech company. Of course, this issue won’t be solved by tech companies alone, but also by societal changes, as young girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM jobs from elementary school on.
Sexist Voice Assistants’ Effects On Society
Who cares if most voice assistants are female? They aren’t real people, after all. And how much can a voice assistant’s responses actually impact gender dynamics in the real world?
As it turns out, a lot. According to Calvin Lai, a researcher at Harvard University, gender associations are dependent on how many times people are exposed to certain gendered actions. So as virtual assistants increase in popularity, people will associate females with assistants more and more, if default voices remain female. This could mean that people are more likely to view women as assistants, and in turn, might punish them for not being assistant-like, Lai wrote in “The Psychology of Implicit Intergroup Bias and the Prospect of Change” published by Washington University in St. Louis. The United Nations study echoed this sentiment, reading,
“Because the speech of most voice assistants is female, it sends a signal that women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like ‘hey’ or ‘ok’…In many communities, this reinforces commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment.”
Nothing exists in a vacuum, and voice assistants are no exception. Especially as technology develops more emotive, conversational, and human-like voice assistants, it’s easy to absorb ideas about how women should behave emotionally, i.e doing emotional and administrative labor and expecting nothing in return. Although no one can claim that Alexa needs a union, being automated, she can still influence people’s perceptions of gender roles.
Solutions For Sexist Voice Assistants
Fortunately, there are many solutions to make voice assistants more egalitarian, and some companies have already started improving.
Change Responses To Inappropriate/ Harassing Questions
Since the study from the United Nations was originally published, many voice assistants have updated their responses to harassing or inappropriate questions. For example, Siri now responds with “I don’t know how to respond to that” when called a bitch, a much better response than “I’d blush if I could”.
Don’t Make The Default Voice Feminine
Females don’t always need to be the default for voice assistants. Rather, companies can give options for both genders, taking away a default altogether.
Rather than adding a male voice option and taking away defaults altogether, some companies are creating voice assistants without one clear gender. Project Q, for example, is a great example of a gender-neutral voice assistant. After its creators listened to the voices of males, females, trans and non-binary people, they selected one voice and edited it to make it more gender-neutral.
Julia Carpenter, a human behavior expert who helped develop Project Q, believes in the importance of challenging gender roles in voice assistants, despite the idea that women are better for assistive roles and men are better for authoritative roles. This typecasting “really reinforces gender stereotypes”, she said in an interview with NPR. By doing away with a single gender altogether, Project Q doesn’t make any judgments based on gender, allowing the user to avoid further patriarchal indoctrination.
Hire More Women In Tech
Finally, the inclusion of more women in tech jobs, software developer jobs in particular, is a simple way to prevent sexist software. Of course, hiring more women in tech is easier said than done, but some basic ways to start include:
- Invest in recruitment and retention of women
- Create leadership development programs for women
- Support flexible work and career support policies like maternity leave, comprehensive healthcare, etc.
One example of a tech company that successfully increased its number of female employees is Intuit, according to the aforementioned Evia study. While women only fill 15% of technology positions across the industry, at Intuit, they fill 27%. Of course, this still isn’t nearly proportionate to the amount of women in the workforce, the company has at least taken steps to correct societal inequalities.
Voice assistants are just one of many examples of the subjugation of women in Western culture. However, being programmed by man, they are an easier thing to fix than say, income equality. With greater awareness of sexist attitudes and changes to algorithms, there’s no reason why voice assistants should say anything about gender, particularly because they don’t technically have one.
Is the Google Assistant a girl?
When the Google Assistant was first released, it only had a female voice option. However, in October 2017, they added a male option, although the female voice is still the default in most countries.
Is Siri a female?
Siri was originally released with a female voice, but in June 2013, Apple added a male option, although the female voice remains the default in most countries.
Is Alexa a female?
Alexa has a female voice and there’s no option to change it to a male voice.