UPDATED 01:00 EDT / APRIL 12 2016


Trust a (digitized) woman to do all the hard work

“Siri, you know that being a woman makes you subservient, don’t you?”

“Hey Cortana, can you wear that sexy skirt to the office tomorrow?”

This is not how you should speak to your secretary, but is it what tech companies have in mind when choosing a female voice (and name) for their digital assistant?

You may have wondered why your digital assistant, whether you use Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Google Now or Amazon’s Alexa – to name a few –  is a woman. At the same time you may not have given it a second’s thought. It seems natural, right, that your personal secretary, always there at your beck and call, should reply to your every request in effeminate cadences.

Smart agents are on the rise and it’s predicted that soon they will be a lot smarter. But why do tech companies always choose women to fill the roles of the agent – women, if we look closely, that have a certain sex appeal? Diversity, it seems, has heretofore not been embraced when it comes to our trusted digital friends.

In women we trust?

One reason is we expect our digital dogsbody to be female is the fact that 96 percent of American secretaries are women according to U.S. labor statistics, although research says that people in general find a woman’s voice more pleasing to the ear than a man’s voice.

Perhaps the most quoted person concerning this matter is Stanford University Professor and human-computer interaction expert Clifford Nass. He once said, “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.” According to Nass, our preference for the female voice starts when we are mere fetuses taking in sounds from inside the womb.

Women’s voices are more caring than men’s voices, according to Nass, but when we want expertise we would rather listen to a man’s voice. We may like female voices, but we don’t always trust female voices. In his book ‘The Man Who Lied to His Laptop’ Nass writes of an incident in the 90s when carmaker BMW AG had to recall its female-voiced navigation system because German men would not take directions from a woman. Political ads predominantly use male voices, mainly because men tell you what is right. Women on the other hand provide help, at least in the world of how we interpret voices.

The question has arisen time and again whether tech companies have been sexist employing only females to do the secretarial work inside your device. Apple actually gives you the option to change your default female voice, that of American voice-over artist Susan Bennett, to the voice of British TV presenter Jon Briggs. Microsoft has mulled over giving Cortana the voice of a “dude”, although it seems He has not yet been born. Jenn Taylor is presently the voice of Cortana in the U.S.

What’s in a name?

It would seem to most that the triumvirate of Alexa, Siri and Cortana is one made up of women, for the simple fact that, duh, they have female names. Nonetheless, if you ask Siri if she’s a woman she will tell you she’s genderless, while if you ask Cortana the same serious question you get a silly answer. Are tech companies in denial about their digital assistant’s sexual status?

The meaning of Siri is Norse for ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’. Cortana is a not very common name, and she’s also a rather libidinous character from the game Halo. Naomi and Alyx were reported as being other frontrunners as names for Microsoft’s digital assistant. Alexa, etymologically speaking, means ‘protector of man’. It seems there is a pattern here, something along the lines of our digital assistants being attractive female indentured servants. In an Atlantic story this was brought up, as was the possibility that we find female voices less threatening or the fact that we might “just take orders from a female voice better.”

The latter quote was from Dennis Mortensen, the CEO and co-founder of the digital assistant x.ai. It’s his belief that we are “on the cusp of a software revolution” in which intelligent agents will soon become a big factor in our lives. We only need to cast our minds back a little while to Microsoft’s Build conference to see how much energy Redmond is spending on smart agents. Mortensen doesn’t believe that giving our agents the voices of women reflects on any gender issue, although his company made a woman, Amy, their voice of choice.

A study at the University of Sheffield in England revealed that women’s voices come across as clearer due to the fact they are processed in the auditory part of the brain – apparently the male voice is processed in a different part of the brain. The same study found that the female voice is deciphered with the same part of the brain that processes music due to a woman’s sound apparently being more melodic. It takes more effort to process than a male voice does, but it’s also apparently more stimulating.

Men are bad for business

If you look at the engineering teams behind the creation of Cortana and Siri you’ll find men at the helm. You would be entitled to ask if this is not a factor in our digital assistants being women with names relating to beauty and the protection of men. You might also be entitled to ask if there’s anything wrong with having a caring, attractive woman acting as our caregiver and secretary, or if by doing this we are propagating an outdated and sexist gender stereotype. We might want a man’s voice for one thing and a women’s voice for another, but it’s reasonable to suggest that by compartmentalizing voices we also prolong antiquated gender roles.

Are our female digital assistants a matter of supply and demand, a consequence of ingrained psycho-sociological bias? It might be true, and so it wouldn’t be prudent from a business perspective to give the consumer a male voice. Perhaps the most recognizable male digital assistant of all time is that of HAL 9000, from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and look what happened to him. Diversity in the realm of our new world of smart agents just wouldn’t be good for business.

Nass, now deceased, once said that we expect men to tell us what to do, and we want women to help us do what we want to do. We enjoy our technology helping us out, Nass said, but we also want to feel ownership of it. For this reason a man in charge of your affairs might not be ideal for some old-fashioned folks. Nonetheless, these are still early days for intelligent agents, and no doubt soon we’ll be designing our very own smart voices. When this happens we might just learn something about ourselves.

Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr

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