An Amazon Echo device. (Ian Terry/Black Press Media)

An Amazon Echo device. (Ian Terry/Black Press Media)

Alexa, what’s your gender?: Female-voiced virtual assistants spur debate

Default settings in Canada is a woman’s voice for Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Assistant

Apple’s Siri can prattle off the height of celebrities at the drop of a hat. Amazon’s Alexa can order a fresh batch of toilet paper to your door. Google’s Assistant can help tune your guitar, while Microsoft’s Cortana does impressions on request.

Just say the word, and these digital assistants will respond to your queries with synthetic pep and nary a hint of complaint. But ask any of the devices about their gender and they seem to demur.

Pose the question to Siri, Cortana or Assistant, and each will insist they transcend such human constructs. Alexa replies, “I’m female in character.”

But all of these artificially intelligent aides will answer in a woman’s voice, at least according to their default settings for Canadian users.

READ MORE: Victoria-based seniors’ home uses Alexa in pilot project

Critics argue this chorus of fembots reinforces stereotypes about women being servile, while members of the tech industry insist they’re simply catering to consumers.

Jodie Wallis, managing director of consulting firm Accenture’s Canadian AI department, says there’s truth to both sides of the debate — sexist attitudes may be at play, but developers shouldn’t be held responsible for society’s views.

“It absolutely reinforces stereotypes, but it’s reinforcing those stereotypes based on research done on what we respond well to,” said Wallis.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the company thought “long and hard” about gender and did extensive research about voice in crafting Cortana’s “personality.”

Microsoft concluded there were “benefits and trade-offs to either gender-oriented position,” but found there is a “certain warmth” to the female voice that’s associated with helpfulness — a quality the company wanted in its product, according the spokeswoman.

Representatives for Amazon and Google did not respond to email inquiries about how gender factored into product development, while an Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Researchers at Indiana University found both men and women said they preferred female computerized voices, which they rated as “warmer” than male machine-generated speech, according to a 2011 study.

But late co-author Clifford Nass suggested in the 2005 book “Wired for Speech” that these gender-based preferences can change depending on a machine’s function. Male voice interfaces are more likely to command authority, he wrote, while their female counterparts tend to be perceived as more sensitive.

While Alexa and Cortana only offer female voices, male options were added to Assistant and Siri after their initial rollouts. For some languages and dialects, Siri’s voice defaults to male, including Arabic, British English and French.

Ramona Pringle, a Ryerson University professor who studies the relationship between humans and technology, acknowledged these developments seem promising, but said if companies are passing the buck onto their customers, then they should be able to select the voice during setup.

“The tech industry often does put the onus back on users, whereas it’s not up to an individual user to bring about this kind of change,” said Pringle. “The way that we perpetuate any stereotype is by saying, ‘That’s what people expect.’”

Pringle said there’s a “clear power dynamic” between users and digital assistants, with the female-voiced devices being placed in a subservient role, perpetuating stereotypes that women should be “docile and doing our bidding at our beck and call.”

This form of digital sexism that may seem innocuous, but could become more insidious as AI develops, Pringle warned.

If we’re conditioned to hurl commands or even verbal abuse at female-coded devices, then as robots become more human-like, the risk is women will be dehumanized, she said.

“It’s almost a step backwards, because it changes the way we engage,” said Pringle.

“It’s very concerning, because there’s no reason … for (these devices) being gendered the way that they are.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.[CDC]
More COVID-19 exposures reported at schools in Kelowna

Interior Health added additional schools and dates to their list of exposures

Winter driving conditions returned to the Coquihalla Highway on April 10. (ICBC image)
Coquihalla motorists warned of fresh snow

Five to 10 cm of snow is expected today for the mountain highway.

Tom Smithwick has written a new book, Knocking On Freedom’s Door, about his experiences advocating for a drug addiction treatment program in Kelowna. (File photo)
‘Knocking On Freedom’s Door’: A retired Kelowna lawyer’s insights to mental illness, addiction

Freedom’s Doors advocate Tom Smithwick shares what he has learned from experiences of treatment program clients in new book

Royal LePage Arena was an addition to West Kelowna championed by Len Novakowski. (File photo)
West Kelowna community leader Novakowski dies

Former Westside regional district director Len Novakowski dies after lengthy health battle

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Sun Peaks is tracking rising COVID-19 cases. (Kamloops This Week Photo)
Sun Peaks sees spike in COVID-19 cases at end of ski season

On April 9, there were 15 positive cases confirmed.

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Most Read