They never say no or tell you you’re being rude. They don’t bristle when you fail to say “please” or “thank you,” and they’re always on call to answer questions any time of day or night. They’re virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon’s Alexa, and they’re overwhelmingly gendered female.
In a world where voice-activated tech is increasingly ubiquitous, this is a major setback for gender equality. The relentless chorus of female-voiced virtual assistants reinforces the stereotype that women are passive helpers, not leaders. As those assistants move into workplaces where women are already underrepresented at the top (as of 2018, women filled only 23% of C-suite roles), correcting their biases is even more urgent.
Reinforcing negative stereotypes
Tech companies often defend their use of female voices as assistants by citing market research. Customers consistently rate female voices as more pleasant and agreeable. But that’s likely a reflection of existing and problematic social norms, which demand women be caring and helpful, while men can be authoritative and assertive. One study suggested that when AI gives commands instead of assistance—as with a GPS device—a male voice is actually preferred.
These unfortunate dynamics come to a head in the workplace. U.S. offices are often riven by gender inequality, in part because of the persistent perception that women’s role is to serve and not to lead. Women hold 96% of administrative assistant positions, according to 2010 Census data, and female employees overall are already more likely to do “non-promotable work” around the office. These are tasks that are helpful to the organization but don’t contribute to women’s career advancement, such as planning holiday parties or taking notes at meetings.
Exacerbating unconscious biases
Constantly hearing female voices agree to perform mindless tasks like turning on lights or looking up the weather can’t help but reinforce these outdated conceptions of women’s work. These unconscious biases work on women just as much as they work on men and may impact how young women see their roles in the workplace and their career possibilities.
Some may argue that rational people know the difference between a robot and a human woman and that how a man talks to Alexa won’t change how he talks to a female colleague. However, the biases we’re talking about are more pernicious for being subconscious. It’s much harder to root out your prejudices when you don’t even know they’re there.
Leaning on sexist tropes
The implicit lessons that virtual assistants teach about sexual harassment are even more troubling. As a May 2019 UNESCO report notes, many voice assistants were initially programmed to “greet verbal abuse with catch-me-if-you-can flirtation.” While most tech companies have reworked assistants’ responses—Alexa, for example, now replies to much sexual explicit talk with “I’m not going to respond to that”—serious issues remain. Apple was recently criticized for programming Siri to deflect questions about the #MeToo movement and other controversial gender debates instead of facing them head on.
As the UNESCO report notes, this kind of passivity also “reinforces sexist tropes.” It’s also a missed opportunity to push the dialogue forward. Virtual assistants have the potential to become a tool for reshaping gender norms at work, instead of reinforcing them if only tech companies will lead the way.
What tech companies can do
While tech companies have made some progress in addressing the issue of feminized AI, change isn’t coming nearly fast enough. Several companies have added male-voice options, but the majority of virtual assistants still default to a female voice out of the box. In Alexa’s case, the sole full-featured male voice available is that of actor Samuel L. Jackson, and it’ll cost a user $.99 to access.
More companies could follow in the steps of Google, which now randomizes the default voice for its Nest and Google Home devices, so users have a 50-50 chance of getting one gender or the other. Alternatively, companies could do away with the idea of gendered voices entirely. In March, a team of researchers, sound designers, and linguists launched Q, touted as the world’s first gender-neutral AI voice.
However, in the long-term, the best way to address gender issues in AI is to promote a more inclusive tech culture, to begin with. Less than 30% of tech jobs today are held by women. Would Siri or Alexa have sounded different if more women had been there to help build them?
A good first step is to put inclusive policies in place. For example, some HR departments conduct regular pay equity audits to ensure that men and women are receiving equal pay for equal work. Companies can also establish mentoring programs and affinity groups that empower female employees to support each other in the workplace. Encouraging honest discussions about gender diversity at your company can help, too. Just make sure your organization has a plan in place to address any feedback with concrete action.
Building a more inclusive workplace will have ripple effects far outside the organization. If tech companies can both hire and retain more female workers, it’ll go a long way to making their virtual assistants and all their products and services more equitable.
Julia Kanouse is the CEO of ITA.