My smartphone is a sassy Australian woman, and my alarm clock is a nice American woman. When I turn on a new Windows laptop another cheery woman asks me if I’d like to set up Cortana. When I drive, it’s yet another woman that tells me to turn left. And when I’m cooking in the kitchen, Alexa’s sunshine-filled female voice tells me how many tablespoons are in a third of a cup. Digital assistants are quickly entering our homes and aiding in the day to day tasks of our lives, and their voices are almost all women.
A 2011 study in Computers in Human Behavior suggested that regardless of the listener’s gender people typically prefer the sound of male voice when it's being authoritative, but a female voice when it’s being helpful. This is further supported by studies performed internally by big companies who happen to invest heavily in digital assistants, like Google and TomTom.
But the subjects of these studies aren’t without bias! In television, film, and even in your office many tasks performed by digital assistants are also typically performed by women. We expect them to be helpful and men to be bossy. So how much of our innate preference is actual preference and how much of it is long held bias about what women do—bias formed from a lifetime of stereotypical roles for women?
Probably a lot more than any of us would like to think. But we should think, because the only way to overcome a bias is to sit down, stare it in the face and think about it. After shooting the video above, I tried to switch the voice on my phone to a man’s voice, and then I got annoyed because some random Australian dude was telling me what to do. I really did immediately find the male voice more (gratingly) authoritative. Which is stupid because it is a phone, and a phone cannot have a gender. Nor can an AI—at least currently. They can only present, very loosely, the concept of a gender, and even that is all performative.
So maybe next time you’re messing with your phone’s settings, try changing the voice to a male-sounding one. And then, if you find yourself having a powerfully negative reaction, ask yourself why. Is it because you only like it when women are helpful, or because he sounds too bossy? Is it because the very existence of men exhaust you? Is it because you’re carrying all your real world gender baggage into the digital space?
You don’t have to, man, it’s just a phone.