You must have noticed that most of the voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft Cortana and so forth are defaulted to female voices. Developing Siri, the female gendered voice was seen as the “‘natural’ choice for this role” (Obinali, 2019). An exception is Siri which has versions of a male voice in both American and British accents (Stern, 2017).
Personal assistants are generally female. We trust them to take care of matters for us. From since the days old, women have served in such roles, taking care of things with smiles on their faces. Examples of such assistants include secretaries, phone operators, nannies, and maids. According to CNN Business “about 4 million workers in the United States fell under the category of “secretaries and administrative assistants” between 2006 and 2010, and 96% of them were women, according to the U.S. Census” (Kurtz, 2013).
By society at large, women’s voice are perceived as more pleasing than men’s voice. “It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” according to Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, who authored “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices” (Griggs, 2011).
Female voices are associated with helpfulness. Market studies by Microsoft and Amazon found users prefer female voices (Stern, 2017). Female voices are seen as helpful and not commanding or confrontational (Grattan, 2019). Simply reflecting on how humans have related and survived over thousands of years, we can strongly argue that the brain fundamentally receives men’s and women’s voices differently. An University of Sheffield study concluded that female voices are processed by the human brain in an auditory region of the brain that is the same as for music and male voices are processed in the back of the brain in an area known as the “mind’s eye.” (Grattan, 2019) . In the US, female voices are perceived to be more “open and prone to acceptance” compared to men (Obinali, 2019). Women’s voices are judged to be more “warm” (Stern, 2017). Women whose voices drop at the end of words are seen by as especially trustworthy (Trudeau, 2014).
In the perspective of the article “From Alexa to Siri and the GDPR: The Gendering of Virtual Personal Assistants and the Role of EU Data Protection Law” this female voice dominance over the virtual assistant field serves to feed a cultural perception of women being “submissive and secondary to men” in their roles (Loideain, 2018). This article seems like a typical feminist narrative, which so often takes a negative perspective on gender roles –roles with which women can actually be seen as having a monopoly over some facet of society. Woman are often the primary caregivers, yet feminists bemoan that they are burdened. Regardless of the feminist narrative, many women will say that they feel the most fulfilled spending quality time with their children. From the father’s perspective, a fine voice can be found in music about how men feel being away from their children, even as parents with legal custody rights. Lyrics that touch on these themes can be seen in the song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin which is about the regrets of a businessman or “I wish I could have been there” by John Anderson from the perspective of a truck driver. Some great insight on gender roles and spheres of influence can be found in one of the major premises of the book by David Shackleton (CAFE Ottawa chapter president) book, The hand that rocks the world. A concept to be seen in the title is that women gain major influence over the mindsets and beliefs of children through being primary caregivers.
So similarly, we should ask what it means for woman’s voices to be the default for virtual assistants. It could be argued that this makes women the voice of helpfulness and the voice of knowledge. On NPR radio (USA) three of the five hosts of its biggest shows are women (Shepard, 2010). This example of radio, demonstrates that women are increasingly being highlighted as voices of knowledge and reason. According to Tim Goldich in his book, Loving Men Respecting Women: the future of Gender Politics, women are 90% of school teachers, page 48 (Goldich 2014).
If women today are increasingly seen as the voice of knowledge and as the classic voice of helpfulness and friendliness, than society should take concern. Why are men not seen as so helpful or friendly? Are women increasingly becoming the voice of moral authority and knowledge authority? These cultural perceptions can be seen as examples of misandry in society. For society to advance, we should challenge its bias to better trust and love women over men. For any bias of women over men represents a form of brokenness or hatred in the world. Let us seek to be voices of love and reason in a confused world.
Goldich, Tim. Loving Men, Respecting Women: The Future of Gender Politics. 2014.
Grattan, Debbie. “6 Reasons Most People Trust a Female Voice Over Male Voices.” Debbie
Grattan Voiceover Talent, 12 Aug. 2019, www.debbiegrattan.com/blog/why-trust-female-voice-over-male-voice/.
Griggs, Brandon. “Why Computer Voices Are Mostly Female.” CNN, 21 Oct. 2011, www.cnn.com/2011/10/21/tech/innovation/female-computer-voices/index.html.
Kurtz, Annalyn. “Why Secretary is Still the Top Job for Women.” CNNMoney, 31 Jan. 2013, money.cnn.com/2013/01/31/news/economy/secretary-women-jobs/index.html.
Obinali, Chidera, “The Perception of Gender in Voice Assistants” (2019). SAIS 2019 Proceedings. 39.
Ni Loideain, Nora, and Rachel Adams. “From Alexa to Siri and the GDPR: The Gendering of Virtual Personal Assistants and the Role of EU Data Protection Law.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2018.
Shepard, Alicia. “Where Are the Women?” NPR.org, 2 Apr. 2010, www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2010/04/02/114595757/where-are-the-women.
Stern, Joanna. “Alexa, Siri, Cortana: The Problem With All-Female Digital Assistants.” The Wall Street Journal, 21 Feb. 2017, www.wsj.com/articles/alexa-siri-cortana-the-problem-with-all-female-digital-assistants-1487709068.
Trudeau, Michelle. “You Had Me At Hello: The Science Behind First Impressions.” NPR.org, 5 May 2014, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/05/05/308349318/you-had-me-at-hello-the-science-behind-first-impressions.