Viewpoint: “Siri, what can you tell us about gender roles?”

Siri. Cortana. Alexa. Apart from being virtual assistants, what do these things all have in common?

They’re all female names, for pieces of software that are most commonly identified as female. It’s one of those things you likely just accept without thinking – I know I have, most recently while writing about Siri for a feature on iPhone’s 10th anniversary tomorrow. But yesterday I saw a talk from Tracey Follows, chief strategy & innovation officer at Future Laboratory, where she dug into the underlying reasons.

“It’s bound up in the kind of job it might be replacing,” Follows said, in her presentation at the Think with Google conference. “The tasks are those you’d expect in an administrative clerical job. And as a society we might have some assumptions about who does that kind of job.”

It’s an example of how real-world biases – stereotypes that we’d likely all agree belong in the past – carry over into the digital world, the future that we’re currently building. But even before you consider the sociological implications, it’s just a bit weird. We don’t talk about WhatsApp or Snapchat as a “he” – so why do reviews and marketing materials default to calling these virtual assistants “she”?

The most obvious answer is that Alexa and Siri have something that most apps don’t: a voice.

When we hear a human voice, we naturally assign a gender to it. Being fair to the companies designing virtual assistants, this gives them a binary choice. It’s also worth noting that Siri did launch with a male voice in the UK, and that you can now choose between male and female voices, alongside which accent you’d prefer.

However, it’s impossible to deny that it was the female incarnation of Siri which stuck, becoming iconic through appearances in shows like The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley, and inspiring films like Her and Ex Machina. Besides, any attempt to claim that Siri is unisex is slightly undermined by the name, which means ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’.

This is common practice – as part of an effort to humanise the assistants, the tech companies behind them have also picked names that come with gender connotations. Cortana is named – and modelled – after a female character in the Halo games, and even the technology that powers Alexa’s text-to-voice capabilities has a woman’s name: Polly.

This isn’t a coincidence. Derek Connell, SVP for search at Microsoft, last year told the New York Times: “In our research for Cortana, both men and women prefer a woman, younger, for their personal assistant, by a country mile.”

It’s hard to argue with research, but there’s something troubling about that sentence to me – in particular the fact that a “younger” woman’s voice is identified as optimal.

At best, this backs up the idea that assistants are coded as female because of stereotypical views about secretaries and what University of West London professor Helen Hester calls ‘feminised labour’.

At worst… well, remember how I mentioned those movies inspired by Siri earlier? Her is about a man who falls in love with the AI assistant (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who runs his life. The film leaves ambiguous whether this relationship is healthy or not. Not so in Ex Machina, which is a searing critique of a male-led tech industry’s representation of women. Ava, the female-presenting robot in that film, is explicitly designed to be sexually alluring to the two male human characters. I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice to say Ex Machina goes to some fairly dark places as it examines this.

These are works of science fiction, but it’s not too hard to find examples in the real world. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bragging that Alexa has received over 250,000 marriage proposals. The promotional footage for Gatebox, the Japanese answer to Alexa boasting a flirty female hologram which calls its owner “darling”, and texts them to hurry home with a promise that “I’ll be waiting”. The Nesta/ComRes study which found that 26 per cent of 18-34 year olds in the UK would happily date a humanoid robot. There’s no demographic breakdown in the answers, but I’d be willing to hazard a guess.

There’s nothing wrong with catering to people’s sexual needs – honestly, I’d be less creeped out by that last statistic if it was about shagging robots, rather than courting them – but it feels like the future being sold here is a subservient relationship between (male) human and (‘female’) robot. When you factor in real-life gender relations, that gets deeply problematic. Being blunt, it feels like men trying to roll back decades of progress in female independence.

I doubt that’s the intent of the companies, and the people, who design the likes of Alexa and Siri. But it’s the kind of unconscious bias that can creep in, however good your intentions, in workplaces that are primarily single demographic.

Female assistants are just one small effect of this much wider issue with tech culture. For a more concrete example, look at the diversity figures released by Uber this year, alongside the revelations about sexist HR practices from ex-employee Susan Fowler, and the PR nightmare that the company has been facing over the past few months.

But these kinds of minor symptoms are valuable because they are visible – or, in the case of assistants, audible – to everyone, even those of us that don’t work in these companies. It’s just a case of noticing them – or, as happened to me yesterday, having them pointed out by someone who doesn’t share your privilege.

This is exactly why its so important to have female voices at every level of the tech industry, not just on our phones and smart speakers.