A report (opens in new tab) by UNESCO has suggested that the default use of female-sounding voice assistants in our smart home gadgets and smartphones perpetuates sexist attitudes towards women.
The report, titled I'd Blush if I Could, takes its name from Siri's former default response to being called a bitch by users – and criticizes the fact that Apple's Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Microsoft's Cortana, are "exclusively female or female by default, both in name and in sound of voice".
Why is this a problem? Well, according to the report, the default use of female-sounding voice assistants sends a signal to users 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’".
The report also highlights the fact that these voice assistants have "no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it" and responds to queries "regardless of [the user's] tone or hostility".
According to the report, this has the effect of reinforcing "commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment".
This subservience is particularly worrying when these female-sounding voice assistants give "deflecting, lackluster or apologetic responses to verbal sexual harassment".
With at least 5% of interactions with voice assistants being unambiguously sexually explicit, it's not exactly uncommon, either – and their responses are troubling.
According to a report by Quartz (opens in new tab) in 2017, when asked 'who's your daddy?', Siri responded with 'you are' – and when Alexa was told 'you're hot', the assistant responded with 'that's nice of you to say'.
With voice assistants sounding more lifelike all the time, it's not a huge leap to suggest that these evasive responses could "reinforce stereotypes of unassertive, subservient women in service positions".
Since then, Alexa has been updated (opens in new tab) to disengage with verbal harassment, instead saying “I’m not going to respond to that”, or “I’m not sure what outcome you expected”.
Girls to the front
Why does it matter if voice assistants sound female as default? Well, it can affect the way we behave towards women and girls in real life.
As the report says, University of Southern California sociology professor Safiya Umoja Noble found that "virtual assistants produce a rise of command-based speech directed at women's voices".
"Professor Noble says that the commands barked at voice assistants – such as ‘find x’, ‘call x’, ‘change x’ or ‘order x’ – function as ‘powerful socialization tools’ and teach people, in particular children, about ‘the role of women, girls, and people who are gendered female to respond on demand’."
So, how has this been allowed to happen? Why are female-sounding voice assistants so ubiquitous? According to UNESCO, the problem lies in the lack of women in the room when tech companies design their AI voice assistants, and in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) industries as whole.
With just 7% of ICT patents generated by women across G20 countries, these issues provide "a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products, pervasive in the technology sector and apparent in digital skills education".
As well as recommending that the digital gender gap be shortened by "recruiting, retaining and promoting women in the technology sector", the report also recommends that more voice assistants should have male-sounding voices as default, ending the "practice of making digital assistants female by default".
According to CNet (opens in new tab), Amazon and Apple didn't respond to its requests for comment and Microsoft declined to provide comment following its coverage of the report.
Google on the other hand, says that it's "developed a variety of 10 voice offerings in the US and that when customers set up a Google Home device, they have a 50-50 chance of getting either a traditionally female sounding voice, or a traditionally male sounding voice".