Q&A: Alexa, why are voice assistants always women? Special

Posted Sep 6, 2019 by Tim Sandle
Some 47.3 million adults in the U.S. have access to voice assistants at home and work. Before companies jump on the voice assistant bandwagon, they need to consider how these devices will affect the dynamic between men and women at work.
Amazon Echo devices offering users the personal digital assistant Alexa.
Amazon Echo devices offering users the personal digital assistant Alexa.
David Becker, GETTY/AFP/File
According to Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, women have dominated administrative roles for decades — even now, about 95 percent of administrative assistants in the U.S. are women. Most virtual assistants come preset with a female voice, so the question is, what message does this send to women in the workplace? Does it reinforce stereotypes and attitudes about their roles? The result is a subconscious, yet harmful effect.
Digital Journal discusses with Julia Kanouse about how technologies like Alexa, Siri and Cortana can be exclusionary to women, reinforcing the concept that women occupy the role of administrative assistants as opposed to more senior-level roles within an organization.
Digital Journal: How popular have voice assistant become? What is driving the move of voice assistants from home to the workplace?
Julia Kanouse: Voice assistants skyrocketed in popularity over the last couple of years, with an estimated 47.3 million adults in the U.S having access to smart speakers at home. It hasn’t taken long for companies to realize the same benefits these devices provide at home - whether it’s scheduling appointments, sending messages, answering questions - have huge potential to create more efficiencies in the workplace.
DJ: What are the implications of voice assistants at work continuing to have exclusively female voices?
Kanouse: While listening to a voice assistant might not directly result in treating your female colleagues any differently, it feeds into subconscious biases against women at work. Female voice assistants reinforce stereotypes that women occupy administrative assistant roles instead of high-level positions within an organization, implying women are there to serve executives (who are typically men).
It’s important to remember these stereotypes go beyond the workplace, potentially impacting how young girls and young women view themselves and their career opportunities. Given that women are underrepresented at every level in the workplace, especially in the c-suite, female voice assistants could reinforce the culture behind this gap. Companies need to be careful not to send the wrong message to young women entering the workforce about the types of roles available to them in their organization.
DJ: Why have tech companies stuck to female voices for their assistants?
Kanouse: Many tech companies have conducted research showing female voices are considered more “sympathetic and agreeable,” making them a clear choice for standardized voices. What’s alarming is not the choice to use a female voice, but the research upon which this decision is based. Why are women’s voice better received in an assistant capacity? Is it because we’re used to having women assist us? This indicates that as a society, we’re still used to viewing women as assistants to their male counterparts and there’s a long way to go before we can shed this mentality.
Now that voice assistants are farther along in the product life cycle, tech companies have the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Changing the default voice setting, or at least providing more voice options, could be a powerful statement from these influential companies.
DJ: How can tech companies best promote diversity between men, women and different ethnic groups?
Kanouse: Having an inclusive culture is the most important step for tech companies to promote diversity in the workplace. Even if a company has success hiring diverse candidates, they won’t stay long if they don’t feel welcome. Getting inclusion right via your policies and guidelines is a critical first step for creating a more diverse workforce. T
o do this, leaders need to have an honest conversation about where the company stands in terms of diversity and inclusion. Having female voice assistants could unknowingly create a culture that doesn't feel inclusive; on the other hand, proactively ensuring that all kinds of voices are heard (if your organization uses voice assistants) could reinforce an inclusive culture. Creating a plan to address any challenges is the next step so employees know change is coming.