Up until recently, virtual assitants have almost entirely been female (read: Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana and Google Assistat). That's largely because both men and women prefer the sound of female voices, as they're perceived warmer and more relatable; female voices make people receptive to voice-activated technology. That's the scientific explanation, anyway. Of course, it's also because society expects women to fulfill these assistant roles more so than men.
In 2016, The Atlantic contributor Adrienne LaFrance, wrote: "People are conditioned to expect women, not men, to be in administrative roles — and that the makers of digital assistants are influenced by these social expectations." In essence: We seem to have an easier time telling female voices what to do than we do telling male voices what to do.
Flash forward to 2018, and we're still having this conversation. Writing for PCMag, Chandra Steele said in January: "When performed by humans, these tasks have sociological and psychological consequences. So one might think that using an emotionless AI as a personal assistant would erase concerns about outdated gender stereotypes. But companies have repeatedly launched these products with female voices and, in some cases, names. But when we can only see a woman, even an artificial one, in that position, we enforce a harmful culture."
"Many consumers have accused tech firms of sexism, but firms that offer a virtual assistant have done research prior to settling on a female voice and name," wrote Stacy Liberatore for the DailyMail in 2017. Reportedly, an Amazon spokesperson told the DailyMail that the company had asked for customers' opinions by testing Alexa's voice with large internal beta groups before launch; ultimately, they chose the female voice Alexa has been given. The spokesperson reportedly described Alexa has exuding "characteristics you'd see in a strong female colleague, family member or friend — she is highly intelligent, funny, well-read, empowering, supportive and kind." She's even a "self-identified feminist (ask her!) and a proponent of human rights in general," the spokesperson told the DailyMail.
Of course, achieving equal human rights only works when everyone, men and women are involved in those efforts. And some tech companies have started to realize the importance of boasting male voice options. Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant currently offer the option to switch to a male voice since 2013 and 2018, respectively. And now, Amazon has finally followed suit and has added alternative vocal options for its assistant. While the primary Alexa voice will remain unchanged, Amazon introduced eight new male and female voices on Wednesday, according to Tech Crunch, all of which developers can implement.
Alexa debuted in 2014, so it's about time the company started offering male voices, as well — barring the fact that it did used to take a while to create these voice personalities. Historically, recording a voice assistant's audio was a lengthy process, as a voice actor would have to recite hours of words, lines and sounds, according to Slate. Now, the process takes just a fraction of the amount of time it used to, however. With new technologies in place, companies can use smaller samples of recorded audio to generate a broad variety of human-sounding words and phrases digitally.
"The vocal variety now offered by these companies minimizes the subservient female assistant vibe," Slate contributor Christina Bonnington wrote about the additional options. "And as these assistants are increasingly being adopted in households with children, bossing around not just a female-voiced assistant seems like a healthy step in teaching gender equality and eliminating traditional gender role expectations."
The variety in voices is certainly a welcome addition to our virtual assistants.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.