It might seem that we’ve come along way from Mad Men, the 1960’s, where men sat at desks inside offices while female secretaries sat outside. Today, not only are women inside the office, they’re sitting in the C-suite. Just to name a few:
- Sheryl Sandberg, COO @ Facebook
- Susan Wojcicki, CEO @ YouTube
- Ginni Rometty, CEO @ IBM
- Angela Ahrendts, Senior VP @ Apple
- Ruth Porat, CFO @ Alphabet
- Gwynne Shotwell, COO @ SpaceX
Yet, as women have gained respect and power in the workplace, a new wave of female assistants has come about: the ones living in your phones, smart homes, cars, and even banks. A new stereotype has been created around voice assistants: some have female names, all have female voices by default.
So, how did this happen, again?
If you were to ask the companies behind the popular voice assistants, the answer is ubiquitous: “we did our research.”
PCMag looked into this, but the results are still biased. The Alexa team told them, “We tested many voices with our internal beta program and customers before launching and this voice tested best,” and Microsoft chimed in by saying, “a female choice was the stronger choice” for their objectives with Cortana.
The fact is that even if the studies were conducted on fair focus groups, the interviewees still come from a world where female voices are the default: in navigation devices, ATM’s, and voicemail recordings. It’s 2018, why are we still living with the stereotype that female voices are meant to be the ones who take commands?
If we look at the companies behind most voice assistants, it’s a little unclear why they would all be women. Apple and Alphabet, both on the list above, have women at their helm.
But, if we look at the people creating these assistants at the companies mentioned above, it becomes a little more clear.
If you look at the ratio of men to women in the tech teams at both companies, it’s pretty obvious how the choice leaned to having a female voice by default: men outnumbered women 4:1 in making the call.
This issue is similar to what happened during the discovery of another tech breakthrough. Emily Chang writes in her book, Brotopia, about the creation of image compression and the JPEG.
It was 1973 and the computer science lab at USC needed an image to test their first compression algorithm. A Playboy magazine was lying around, and one of the programmers picked up the magazine to look for a photo. Fully comprised of men, the team thought nothing of using the centerfold; it never occurred to them as offensive to women.
Although cropped to show only her face, the picture of the Playboy model named Lena would go on to become the most well-recognized picture of a woman in the computer science field, serving as a benchmark for image compression across the world.
While crucial for the programming world, Lena to this day serves as a reminder that misogyny has burdened the tech world for decades, and it stems from the fact that the field is male dominant.
Where does this stand now?
Here are some of the voice assistants out right now:
- Siri, Apple
- Google Assistant, Alphabet
- Alexa, Amazon
- Bixby, Samsung
- Cortana, Microsoft
- Erica, Bank of America
Notice a common theme? Five out of the six above are labeled as a girl name on BabyNames.com. Each one has a female voice by default.
Looking at the setup screens for Apple’s, Google’s, and Samsung’s voice assistants is even more discouraging, as none even signal there’s an option to change their gender.
To change the voice of Siri on the iPhone, one needs to open Settings, go to General, find Siri & Spotlight, scroll down and tap Siri Voice, and at the bottom, under Gender, select male.
Why isn’t a choice given at the start?
Where to go from here
At The Next Web NYC last year, I sat down to talk with Dennis Mortensen, the CEO of X.ai, a natural language processing (NLP) AI startup that offers an email assistant to help schedule meetings by being CC’d into threads.
When I asked Dennis why there weren’t multiple personas for multiple personalities, he responded, “Well there are two genders, [email protected] and [email protected], but in terms of personality, they adapt to whoever they’re emailing with.”
And when I followed up by asking what the ratio of Amy to Andrew uses is, he said something even more surprising: almost 50/50. Their UX researchers found that most men use Amy, most women use Andrew.
A simple choice — sans button, toggle, or menu — fixed an issue that’s in billions of smartphones in the world.
Giving the user an option to change the default when setting up can prevent more and more companies from reinstating the stereotype of female assistants. Design has to play a role in giving users a choice of gender up front.
X.ai’s findings show that a simple UX choice fixed the imbalance growing in the world of AI assistants. Now, this knowledge has to be applied to operating systems.
A call for possible design solutions
To truly create an unbiased experience, design thinking is a must.
If you have any ideas, please drop them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this post with credit to you! If you know anyone with knowledge about this subject, share this post with them so they can contribute too.
Hopefully, we can start a conversation that should have arisen with the launch of the iPhone 4S.