Siri Reinforces Gender Roles

In the often-stifling environment of the 1950s, one of the few careers predominantly open to women was secretary or personal assistant. She was supposed to organize the daily activities of her bosses — most of whom were men — organize the office, plan events, answer questions, respond to dictation, and basically make his life easier.

Thankfully, women are now far more empowered in the workplace, and it is clear to see women are capable beyond the position of an office assistant. There is nothing wrong with being an office assistant, but the image of a professional working woman only capable of being an assistant is inappropriate. Women had to spend decades fighting the stereotype they were best suited for assistant work and they couldn’t be the boss.

Some women struggle even now to overcome this idea that they are not capable of taking professional jobs in the business world outside of being a secretary. Women, though they make up 52 percent of the professional workforce, only account for 14.6 percent of executive positions, according to the Center for American Progress. Women still face an uphill battle for leadership positions, and part of that is simply overcoming the image of a docile assistant. It is important to recognize subconscious reinforcers of the idea women are best suited to taking orders.

Unfortunately, we reinforce this trend of women as “order-takers” almost every day. Pew Research center estimates 77 percent of Americans have a smart-phone, which means 77 percent of Americans have access to a slew of personal assistants right in their pockets — Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s “okay Google.” There is a disturbing trend regarding these electronic assistants though. When you first unwrap that gleaming little slab of technological wonder, power up your phone and try voice commands for the first time, what will be the response?

A female voice replies, “ready for service.”

Why is it that for these big four software packages — Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft — your default assistant is female? Is it because people prefer a female to take orders, as if it is more natural for a female voice to order more paper towels, tell me about the traffic, or dictate an email to a coworker?

What this trend reveals is a shocking inclination that females take orders and are gladly there to help you out with your day. Both men and women who use this software are reinforced with the idea that it is preferable to have a female assistant than a male. As an owner of an iPhone, I realize Apple has enabled users to switch the default, female voice to a male voice. But even then, in all of their product promotions, the default, female voice is used, and many people probably do not even realize there is an option.

Furthermore, Amazon’s Alexa does not even take a crack at a gender-neutral name. Alexa is a female, and she is there to run the household as seen in the commercials where she is regularly told to add things to the shopping list and to stock kitchen goods and cleaning products. Microsoft’s Cortona is almost just as cruel. Some might not know, but Cortana was originally a female, artificial intelligence program in the popular “Halo” videogame franchise.

Even though she was just a software program, in many ways she was more responsible for saving humanity from an alien onslaught than the playable-character “the Master Chief” because of her massive intelligence, her ability to infiltrate enemy computer systems, and her ability to problem solve. In fact, throughout most of the series, she is the boss — telling the player character what to do and where to go. In one scene, she had to correct the bumbling super-soldier who was about to inadvertently activate a super-weapon that would have killed all life for millions of lightyears. And how does Microsoft respect this character? They turn her into an electronic assistant, just begging to Bing you some results — from savior of the universe to an inferior version of the Siri software — the demotion of the century.

These electronic companies need to realize they are not helping women by defaulting them to order-takers. Perhaps they could use some diversity in advertisements or use a male voice rather than a female. In the case of Amazon and Microsoft, they may need to go back to the drawing board to achieve a more fair software platform. This subtle form of conditioning people to expect females to act solely as assistants endangers the future of working women everywhere.

These software companies must be made to realize the labels they are placing on women and encouraged to correct them. They should follow Apple’s lead in allowing users to choose a male voice — in British and Australian accents no less — and Apple needs to promote this feature more. It is our job to call out harmful behavior. Hey Siri, please don’t hold women back.