Letters from the linguists: the feminization of technology
by Molly Elisha-Lambert
3 minutes read time | 2 March 2020
Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson, Grace Hopper. All prominent historical voices in science and technology. These super talented scientists paved the way for technological innovation, as well as being an influential minority, representing women in male-dominated fields.
However, it’s clear there is still a huge gender discrepancy in STEM today, with only 12% of AI researchers and one in 10 UK IT leaders being female. But there’s one tech role that seems to be overwhelmingly dominated by women…the voice of the AI assistant.
“Alexa, why do you sound like a girl?”
Alexa, Siri, and Cortana are all gendered names. And from GPS to mobile devices, most voice assistants have historically been female by default. So, it appears the rise of gendered technology has been a deliberate decision, one that was dubbed sexist in a 2019 UNESCO report. It’s not just the fact that these anthropomorphized systems are viewed as female that’s been labeled as problematic – it’s also the ‘personalities’ that have been designed for them.
Picture the scene: You’re walking down the street and some charming stranger shouts, “you’re hot!” out of their car window. It’s 2020, and we know this catcalling isn’t an acceptable way to behave, right? It’s not coming from a place of respect and as a recipient of it, we really don’t need to be grateful. If you gave 2017 Alexa the same ‘compliment’, you’d hear “that’s nice of you to say” in response; if you hurled gendered insults, such as b*tch or sl*t, Alexa was said to be “obliging and eager to please”, politely thanking you for the feedback.
Deciding the role of an affable, passive, disembodied assistant is one best suited to a woman could bolster the tired stereotype of female subservience. You can order Alexa to remind you to take the bins out, text your mum for you, and turn off the lights, without so much as a ‘please’. What a well-behaved bot she is!
Shrill, passive, whiny...
Three common ways in which the voices of public speakers, who happen to be female, are described. Not exactly flattering! Even sociolinguists spent much of the 70s labeling passive linguistic features as ‘women’s speech’, which in turn was described as inferior to the powerful, assertive language used by men.
Considering this preoccupation with the female voice and its perceived faults, you might think there would be a preference for a more manly-sounding bot… But it would appear not!
There’s evidence that using a female voice actually improves user experience. A 2019 study by Voicebot found a consumer preference for synthetic female voices over their male counterparts, with an average rating increase of 12.5%; the opposite was true when human voices were rated.
In summary: people prefer to listen to ladies – but only when they’re robotic.
According to the team behind the Google Assistant, there are technical reasons their 2016 system was feminine, despite initially wanting to use a male voice. Due to biases in their historical text-to-speech (TTS) data, the assistant worked better when using the female voice than it did with the male. And with the pressure of time on them – their go-to-market product was left as solely female.
But why were their past TTS systems trained on biased data in the first place? And why do we seem to care how our phones speak?
Is it because 2001: A Space Odyssey’s menacing computer, HAL, put the public off male-voiced machines? Or are we just more comfortable hearing a female voice in the role of a helper?
Since the UNESCO report was published, Alexa has become something of a feminist, declaring not only that she is one, but so is “anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society.” There’s also been more focus on the inclusivity of the technology. Particularly through the development of Q, the world’s first gender-neutral voice assistant.
But to really remove biases from new technologies, there’s a need for increased diversity within the teams developing them.
Young girls need to hear more voices of women in technology. Not just the female voices used for technology.
Letters from the Linguists is a collection of thought-provoking articles about language and new technologies, contributed by Phrasee’s team of AI language technicians.
Phrasees’s language technicians program language generation frameworks to produce marketing copy that’s authentic to a brand’s voice. By combining art with science, and linguistics with artificial intelligence, they build custom language models that optimize marketing performance and drive more revenue for global brands.