Despite the ever-growing popularity of digital assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, for tasks around the house, one University of Florida journalism student is arguing that the usage of female voices for digital assistants is perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Carly Breit, a senior journalism major at UF, recently wrote an op-ed complaining about the near universal usage of female voices as the preferred tone for digital assistants, claiming that it reinforces a notion that “women were created to serve people.”
“In a world that’s finally seeing that women are so much more than the subservient secretaries of the Mad Men era, the gender of almost all of our digital assistants’ voices is a step in the wrong direction,” writes Breit. “No, we’re not hurting Siri’s feelings or diminishing Alexa’s self-worth, but we are reinforcing gender stereotypes that women were created to serve people.”
According to Breit, the notion that a digital assistant should even have a gender is outdated, given that people are no longer required to conform to a specific gender.
“It’s strange that these inanimate objects even need to have a gender either way,” writes Breit. “People don’t need to identify as male or female, so why do robots?”
For Breit, the solution is to come up with a gender-neutral name and a gender-neutral voice for these devices, which she says, “doesn’t seem too difficult to me.”
According to Robert Weideman, an executive vice president at Nuance Communications Inc, a digital company that provides voice interfaces for digital assistants, the concept of creating a genderless voice is extraordinarily difficult.
“Genderless voice is hard,” said Weideman, who conceded that his company does not even have a single gender-neutral voice in stock.
Despite all of her reservations about the role digital assistants may play in perpetuating gender stereotypes, Breit concedes that she would be lost without Siri, Apple’s popular iPhone digital assistant. She has, however, decided to use the voice of an Australian man for her app.
“There’s no way I’d remember half of my to-do list without Siri’s reminders,” writes Breit. “As for me, my new personal assistant, still named Siri, has the voice of an Australian man. He reminds me to sign up for spin class and transcribes my text messages when I’m too lazy to type. You have to start somewhere.”
John Patrick (@john_pat_rick) is a graduate of Canisius College and Georgia Southern University. He interned for Red Alert Politics during the summer of 2012 and has continued to contribute regularly.