Issues of voice assistants being gendered as female


I know, this is a very deep and complex issue, but a relevant one that I’d love to hear your opinions on!

So, today I’ve seen on Twitter that the UNESCO published a report titled “I’d Blush If I Could” that investigates in how far female-gendered voice assistants represent and propagate disempowering gender biases - The parts most relevant for this discussion are from page 92 to 130 - Sounds like a lot, but it’s a great and well-researched read!

One particularly prominent symptom of this issue has been the playful tone in which tone in which voice assitants responded to sexual harassment, one of which inspired the name of the publication (source: ‘Siri, define patriarchy’ by Quartz):

But the issue is deeper than voice assistants not standing up to sexual harassement (which has been worked on): It’s that the (often somewhat imcompetent) “female voice assistant” creates gender associations that will ultimately be reflected in interactions between humans, to the detriment of women (~page 112).

Some proposed solutions to this issue include the following:

  • Using different voices, such as celebrity or genderless voices
  • Completely deflecting personal questions (this seems to be the strategy Google Assistant goes for)
  • Use gender-neutral responses whereever possible
  • Discourage verbal abuse and harassment (I’m not aware of voice assistants and voice apps that do it, but Steve Worswick’s Loebner-prize-winning chatbot Mitsuku does that splendidly)

OK, now I’m curious about your opinions!

  • How well could you imagine a male-gendered voice assistant?
  • How well could you imagine a voice assistant with a genderless voice? Would you be able to relate less to such a personality?
  • What do you think about the premise that users will subconsciously transfer voice assistants’ servant role to actual women?
  • Should the companies behind the common voice assistants act more aggressively against abuse and harassment, at the risk and cost of irritating abusive users?
  • What can we as voice app developers do about this issue?