Do you have some sort of device that uses a female voice to speak at you? Well, then you’re part of sexism
Digital sexism: Why are all virtual assistants women?
It’s 2017, and our most cutting edge consumer technology is a throwback
Why are virtual assistants from Amazon, Google and Apple all “female”?
Technically speaking, of course, virtual assistants don’t have genders. But they do have names and voices that suggest to users they are more “female” than “male” — a characterization that reinforces some of the worst gender stereotypes in our society.
Amy Ingram, an AI personal assistant, is a popular corporate version produced by x.ai. If you carbon copy Amy on an email, she will help schedule a meeting: she introduces herself to the recipient as your personal assistant, suggests times when you’re available and follows up with a calendar invitation to confirm.
Whereas Amy has entered the workforce, Amazon’s bot, Alexa, is primarily a home assistant. You can call out to her to set timers when making dinner, and have her reorder detergent when you realize you’ve run out. She can dim the lights at night, or read you the news headlines in the morning. Alexa’s appeal is that she’s always a holler away: all you need to do is ask.
You know what this means, right?
Companies cite all sorts of research in their decision to make bots female. They claim we take orders better from women, and that people have shown a preference for female voices in automated systems. Clifford Nass, the late co-author of Wired for Speech, a widely cited book on the topic, argued that male voices are perceived as being more authoritative, whereas female voices are understood to be more helpful and supportive. These preconceptions carry over into synthetic voices, which essentially means that even computers are gender stereotyped.
Why does this matter? Because it reinforces a power dynamic that we simply can’t overlook: virtual assistants are designed to be subservient, and creators send a clear message by making them all “female.”
The thing is, these Social Justice Warriors, such as Ramona Pringle, who wrote this bit of insanity for the uber-leftist CBC, are 100% serious. They aren’t trolling you. They don’t write this then sit around at home laughing at all the fools who are agreeing with this and making fun of it. They mean it. This is their world view.
The irony is that as we watch shows like Mad Men and quietly congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve evolved as a society, our most cutting-edge consumer technology is a throwback: one where our “secretaries,” “sous-chefs” and “housekeepers” are women. And by falling into a trap of assuming users want “female” assistants — instead of challenging their biases — the industry that has appointed itself to design the future is perpetuating outdated gender norms.
It’s not a joke. It’s not satire.
The funny part, as so many in the story comments point out, is that these female voices are telling people what to do. Turn here. Turn there. You’re speeding. They’re the ones with the information, and we listen to what they say. How’s that for female empowerment?