On top of that, voice assistants present a second, larger problem that resonates with a passage in David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly
: “Why, in the Peking Opera, are women’s roles played by men?…Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” The UN report
points out that female virtual assistants, created mostly by men, send out a signal that “women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button”, thus reinforcing gender biases. With the wide adoption of speaker devices in communities that do not subscribe to Western gender stereotypes, the feminization of voice assistants might help further entrench and spread gender biases.
3 Suggestions to Fight Gender Bias in Tech
In the broader sense of fighting gender imbalance in the tech world, we at Embodied AI fully endorse the 15 recommendations
outlined by the UN report (pages 36 to 65) for closing the digital skills gender gap. The negative effects caused by female voice assistants are only symptoms of a widespread disease in our society. Only by tackling the root causes of gender bias will we finally one day see long-term progress and improvement on gender equality in the tech community.
On a product level, we propose three suggestions that voice assistant companies can implement right now to fight against gender biases in their products:
Make the product development process more inclusive. In a male-dominant environment, including all genders in product creation and testing will make AI technology more mindful of gender differences. Having gender diversity in our teams in designing the products and making important decisions (such as how voice assistants should respond to misogynist insults) will make our products better, contribute to a more gender-inclusive work environment, and encourage all genders to participate in technology.
Prime users to not associate their voice assistants with females by allowing them to customize their preferred voice and character. That means corporations developing intelligent speakers should stop offering female voices as a default and consider re-branding their products to reduce their association to exclusively female traits.
Give users a wide range of options for customization by including a range of male, female, and genderless voices and personalities. For instance, the creation of Q, the world’s first genderless digital voice, is not only increasing users’ range of choices but is also making technology more gender-inclusive. Additionally, algorithms such as WaveNet, which can imitate the voice of John Legend or any other person, can also achieve these similar effects.
By no means are all voice assistant makers intentionally exacerbating societal gender stereotypes. However, it is important that we all realize how a technological creation will have a life of its own and how even our unintentional actions could exclude certain people from the tech community and create inequalities that we do not foresee. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has a famous motto: “Move fast and break things,” which, one can argue, is a mindset that might have led to the creation of these gender-biased voice assistants. We can apply the same motto in moving fast to include women in tech and begin shaking up these voice assistants to make them more gender-inclusive.