Be it Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or even Google’s nameless ‘Assistant’, there is one thing that all these digital assistants have in common: they all have female voices.
Part of the reason for the number of female-voiced digital assistants could be that they generally tend to perform tasks that are associated with women: make lists, set reminders, and general administrative tasks. So while many have accused these companies of sexism, some studies conducted on the reasons and implications of this trend have indicated that the reason behind it is simply that people find female voices more sympathetic.
The Wall Street Journal reported on two studies conducted on the subject.
The first was conducted at Indian University, where a group of 485 men and women listened to male and female AI voices and both genders found the female voices to be ‘warmer.’
The second study was conducted by Stanford University researchers, who found that people prefer male voices only when used to teach them about computers and technology, while female voices were preferred when receiving relationship advice and companionship.
These findings were consistent for both men and women, indicating that societal stereotypes definitely play a part in how we perceive digital assistants and their ability to help us.
In yet another study, users found a male voice in an automated voice system more ‘usable’ but not necessarily as trustworthy as a female voice.
“Go ahead, I’m Listening…”
Additionally, while disembodied voices are more often than not female, humanoid robots tend to be modeled after men (or attractive, subservient, young women). For example, Gatebox’s Azuma Hikari is modeled after a 20-year-old who longs to help her “Master”, or the fictional Samantha in the movie “Her” with whom her owner falls madly in love.
While definitely not as a rule, there is a predisposition towards creating attractive female robots to cater to the needs of humans. Maybe it says something about society being more comfortable expecting women to do certain tasks, or with the fact that when we think of male robots, we think of more intimidating figures rather than a friendly, helpful presence.
Siri Stands Apart
Within the realm of digital assistants, Apple’s Siri is the only one which even gives users the option to interact with a male voice. Alexa, Cortana, and all the rest come preprogrammed with female voices with no option to change it based on preferences.
The onus is on companies to not only create new technology but also think in new ways about how we interact with them. Even though digital assistants’ one job is to take orders from us, the implications of the way that we speak to them are definitely something that should be carefully considered.
We cannot be content to build the technology of the future based on gender norms of the past, and therefore, we all need to consider the direction in which we want to take the way we interact with AIs, and why we feel the way that we do about them.
Maybe a good place to start would be to change Siri’s voice on your iPhone.