On Siri and Sexism

The cliche, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” usually evokes images of John and Abigail Adams, Odysseus and Penelope, Michael Scott and Pam Beesley. In contemporary times, this patriarchal expression really could apply to all of us.

Most of us carry around our own personal assistant wherever we go. Is this assistant some unisex, gender-neutral being that gives a healthy androgyny to the underappreciated work of an assistant, thus breaking down gender norms? Unfortunately, no.

Although voice activated operating systems such as Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon), and Cortana (Microsoft) claim to be ungendered – Siri, for example, will say “I have no gender” when you ask if it is a man or a woman – the default voice on all of the most popular digital assistant systems is clearly female.

Here is an introductory list of three ways these personal digital assistants fall short of advancing gender equality:

  1. Women are not objects.

The creation of a feminine digital assistant simply contributes to the anachronistic tradition of objectifying women by giving things like ships, islands, forces of nature, and now technology feminine pronouns. Since they are given names (Alexa, Cortana, Siri) and voices that are typically associated with the feminine, these digital assistants are an undeniable objectification of women despite their creators’ claims of ungendered associations. Most individuals even reference these digital assistants with female pronouns like “she” instead of “it.”

  1. Respect should always be a priority.

The simple, direct commands necessary to activate a digital personal assistant is certainly efficient. I think we need to question how this uninhibited giving of orders while expecting instant gratification will affect the non-digital world, particularly how we speak to women and people in service positions. For example, if a user wants Alexa to stop playing music, they must say firmly “Alexa, stop.” I can only hope that with the advance of technology, gentler tones and language will be the preferred form of communication with digital assistants lest certain curt behavior carry over into communication with actual human beings.

  1.  Women need a say in the way they are represented. The Wall Street Journal reports that women comprise, on average, less than 20% of technology jobs at major tech companies. Furthermore, 47% of women in the tech world reported having “been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to do (e.g., note-taking, ordering food, etc.)” – tasks often associated with personal assistant work – according to a survey of several hundred senior level women in the tech field conducted in 2015. To be clear, there is nothing inherently inferior about administrative work. It is an essential component of any successful business. The problem lies in the disproportionate number of women (According to CNN, “secretary” has been the number one job for women over the past 60 years) in the field and the systematic degradation of pink collar jobs.

It takes less than 10 minutes to change the voice on your digital assistant. I challenge you to join me in diversifying the digital assistants in our lives, breaking down gender norms, and challenging the “default” objectification of women that society offers.