The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern reports recent studies have show sexist attitudes are alive and well in the world of virtual voice assistants. An Indiana University study shows that male and female users both prefer a female voice for their virtual assistants, such as Siri and Alexa.
It’s easy to assume sexism, given the dominance of men in the tech industry and the fact that, historically, women more often filled secretarial jobs. According to academic studies and market research, though, it’s more about our natural preferences—how both men and women best warm up to robots.
Preference Depends on Subject Matter
A Stanford University study on the subject showed a user’s preference for a male or female voice depended on the subject matter. Male voices are preferred when the subject was learning about computers, but a female voice was preferred when learning about love and relationships. The same preferences crossed gender lines, as they were found in both men and women.
Among the popular voice-based virtual assistants available, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana all offer female only voices, with no option for a male assistant. Apple’s Siri, while it defaults to a female voice (in most cases), it does offer users the option of hearing their information in a male voice. The assistant defaults to a male voice in Arabic, French, Dutch and British English. (Siri’s voice can be changed on your iOS device by going to Settings -> Siri -> Siri Voice.)
It’s Pat! Your Virtual Assistant
Stern makes reference to a popular Saturday Night Live character in the 90s, “Pat,” an androgynous character whose gender is never revealed.
… Things always got awkward. Apparently, it’s the same for “Pat” bots. Every robotics expert and tech executive I spoke to said that humans are social beings who relate better to things that resemble what they know, including, yes, girls and boys. (I’m aware that some people don’t identify as either.)
Stern writes that even when designers have went fo a “Pat” type of experience, users tend to still assign a gender to the disembodied voice.
… Brian Scassellati, a professor at the Yale Social Robotics Lab, says that in studies where he and his team were meticulous about introducing a particular humanoid robot as “it,” invariably people referred to it as “he” or “she.”
How do you feel about this, readers? Should there be more gender options available for virtual assistants? And what about having an assistant who that doesn’t identify as male or female? Let us know in the comments section below.