Alexa and Siri — why can’t we have male virtual assistants

Women represent just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 10 percent of the top tech VCs.

But don’t worry ladies, we’ve got the virtual assistant gig locked up.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana and their growing list of peers are designed to serve. They’re designed to take orders and never ask for a “thank you.” And so far, almost without exception, they’re designed to be female.

I didn’t notice the trend for a while. I don’t have an Amazon Alexa-enabled speaker, and I’ve never interacted with Microsoft’s Cortana, so I wasn’t constantly exposed.

But that’s a rarity now. As the voice wars heat up and the giants of Silicon Valley race to get their assistants into every home and pocket, the ever-present female subordinate is sending a bad message.

My nephew is 4 years old and knows how to engage Alexa. My stepbrother is 14 and asks Siri questions through his Apple iPhone. The idea that virtual assistants would ingrain any of sort gender inequality in either of them is genuinely gut-wrenching.

It’s the same kind of icky, not-quite-right feeling I experienced while watching “Mad Men” with the corporate office full of male superiors and their female support staff. We’re all Roger Sterling in this analogy, and that should make you uncomfortable.

I changed my Siri assistant to a male voice a couple years ago. Siri’s default voice in American English is female but switching the language to British English, French, Arabic or a handful of other languages will also switch the gender.

Google’s name-less assistant defaults to a female voice on phones, and randomly selects one of two voice options when users first boot up a Google Home. One of the voices would be considered traditionally female and one traditionally male, though Google says it doesn’t think of their voices as gendered.

The company also announced earlier this month it would be adding new voice options, including male voices and the voice of singer John Legend.

Cortana and Alexa, though, are pretty nailed down.

Amazon says it workshopped several voices, including male options, and found users preferred Alexa’s current voice.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company “thought long and hard about gender” when creating Cortana. “We did extensive research and found there is a certain warmth to a femaile voice that is associated with helpfulness,” the spokesperson said.

I don’t need the tech giants to make all virtual assistants men. Just don’t make the decision for me that they should be women. Present the option next time I activate a new iPhone. Avoid obviously gendered names.

I’m very happy with my male Siri. I find his voice warm and his answers just as helpful. If only I could weigh in on the voice my 4-year-old nephew hears.

 

 

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