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Why Are Most AI Assitants “Women”?

Have you ever noticed how our favorite Artificial Intelligence assistants, like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, all have default female voices?

If you are like me, and you’ve wondered why virtual assistants are like this, there are some theories you might want to check out. Some people might think that an emotionless AI, as an assistant, would not be related to gender stereotypes, but it just might be. Since a gender is assigned to these AI assistants, gender roles might be assigned to them as well. The assistants are meant to complete jobs that historically were fulfilled by women, such as scheduling appointments and looking up information. It is odd to think about but these AI assistants are practically performing the job of a secretary which, historically, was an employment position for females. The “typically female” job of a secretary often came along with awful sexism. The sexual harassment in the office was, and still is, terrible, and even Siri, just an algorithm with a female voice, has to endure it. This YouTube video shows an iPhone user asking Siri sexually explicit questions. It might be funny to some people, but some of the same vulgar statements Siri is forced to endure in the video, plenty of women, including myself, have had to endure in reality while walking to class, on the train, or at the gym from catcallers. Even Amazon’s AI assistant, Alexa, endured so much verbal harassment from users that developers needed to create a “disengagement mode” for her. The feature is meant to stop sexist conversations, but it doesn’t explain to users why their language warranted that response. The Android voice assistant, Robin, had a large number of interactions with users that were “clearly sexually explicit”. Ilya Eckstein, the founder and CEO of the now extinct, Robin Labs, said “People want to flirt, they want to dream about a subservient girlfriend, or even a sexual slave” and they looked for that in the female voice assistant. These female AI assistants are inherently female servants residing in our computers, phones, and living rooms. They not only represent women staying in clearly defined gender roles, but also, the societal expectations that women are to just accept the harassment they might receive. After all, “How can we teach young boys to treat women with respect and dignity when they boss around their female virtual assistants all day?”.

If that theory sounds too farfetched to you or you simply don’t want to feel the comradery with the female voice coming out of your phone, there are some other theories to explain why most AI assistants are “female”. For example, an associate professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, Michelle Habell-Pallan, says that the AI assistants’ female voices might stem from people’s perceptions of women. She says, “there’s a kind of comfort that is associated with female voices…So, more warm, more welcoming, more nurturing, all those associations that are connected with women that are not necessary essential qualities but are socially constructed”. She also believes that the female personalities in the AI helpers are perceived as less threatening than male voices by users. Since 2013, a user could change Siri’s voice to male, but users don’t have the same choice with Alexa or Cortana. An Amazon spokesperson said “We tested many voices with our internal beta program and customers before launching and this voice tested best” when referring to Alexa’s female voice. Similarly, a Microsoft spokesperson said “for our objectives — building a helpful, supportive, trustworthy assistant — a female voice was the stronger choice” when referring to Cortana’s female voice.

Whichever theory you believe, it still is a weird trend that all of the most popular AI assistants have female voices. I mean Siri’s name in Norse means “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory“. That is just kind of creepy. So next time you talk to Siri, Cortana, or Alexa, think about the peculiarity of their “female” voices, especially if you believe that it perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes.

Mia is a sophomore at UIC pursuing a double major in history and Spanish. She is also pursuing a double minor in museum studies and social justice.
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