The Real Reason Voice Assistants Are Female (and Why it Matters)
Our interactions with AI teach and train it, but we are also shaped by these experiences.
Ask your phone, Echo, or computer something. Or call your bank and talk to the automated menu. I’ll wait.
Whatever you asked, a synthesized version of a woman likely answered you, polite and deferential, pleasant no matter the tone or topic.
That’s because Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and their foremothers have been doing this work for years, ready to answer serious inquiries and deflect ridiculous ones. Though they lack bodies, they embody what we think of when we picture a personal assistant: a competent, efficient, and reliable woman. She gets you to meetings on time with reminders and directions, serves up reading material for the commute, and delivers relevant information on the way, like weather and traffic. Nevertheless, she is not in charge.
When performed by humans, these tasks have sociological and psychological consequences. So one might think that using an emotionless AI as a personal assistant would erase concerns about outdated gender stereotypes. But companies have repeatedly launched these products with female voices and, in some cases, names. But when we can only see a woman, even an artificial one, in that position, we enforce a harmful culture.
Still, consumers expect a friendly, helpful female in this scenario and that is what companies give them.
“We tested many voices with our internal beta program and customers before launching and this voice tested best,” an Amazon spokesperson told PCMag.
A Microsoft spokesperson said Cortana can technically be genderless, but the company did immerse itself in gender research when choosing a voice and weighed the benefits of a male and female voice. “However, for our objectives — building a helpful, supportive, trustworthy assistant — a female voice was the stronger choice,” according to Redmond.
Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant currently offer the option to switch to a male voice…