If you’ve updated the operating system on your iPhone recently you’ll notice Siri is no longer defaulting to a female voice. This is Apple’s response to criticism of the gender bias in virtual assistance. Digital sociologists Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy argue that Siri, and other voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, have been developed in order to “carry out ‘wifework’ — domestic duties that have traditionally fallen on (human) wives.” They accuse tech companies of designing feminised digital assistants who are “friendly and sometimes flirty, occasionally glitchy but perpetually available”. Spike Jonze’s film Her even had a guy fall in love with one.
This was taken up by Unesco, who reported that by naming voice assistants with traditionally female names, like Alexa and Siri, and rendering the voices as female-sounding by default, tech companies have already preconditioned users to fall back upon antiquated and harmful perceptions of women. Going further, the paper argues that tech companies have the wifely AIs respond to hostile, abusive, and gendered language with jokes or deflection.
“Companies like Apple and Amazon, staffed by overwhelmingly male engineering teams, have built AI systems that cause their feminised digital assistants to greet verbal abuse with catch-me-if-you-can flirtation,” the report states. “Because the speech of most voice assistants is female, it sends a signal that women are... docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like ‘hey’ or ‘OK’.”
Siri is a Scandinavian girls’ name. Amazon reported they chose a female-sounding voice because market research indicated it would be received as more “sympathetic” and therefore more helpful. Microsoft named its assistant Cortana to bank on the existing recognition of the AI character in its Halo video game franchise, which has not only a feminised voice but also a feminised body (sometimes presented naked). Their gendered nature was no accident.
Though there is a long, long way to go fighting the sexism coded into the tech industry, it’s good to see companies forced to make some changes.
Occupational sexism in the tech industry has been in the spotlight for years. A recent survey by “Women in Tech” found:
• 82% of women believe that there are more males than females in tech
• 52% experienced gender bias in the workplace
• 81% believe that the tech industry would benefit from an equal gender workforce
• 70% believe SMEs as well as large organisations have a gender imbalance in the workplace
Despite being one of the fastest growing industries, the tech sector has one of the lowest rates of union membership. Workers are starting to get organised. Last year saw more than 200 Google workers form the Alphabet Union, Facebook’s US employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s failure to moderate president Donald Trump’s comments advocating racist violence, while Amazon warehouses have been seen many walk-outs and protests. Gender equality is one of the many issues tech workers must organise around.