Ask Siri if she’s a woman. Go ahead; try it. She’ll tell you she’s genderless. “Like cacti. And certain species of fish,” she might say. So is Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Samsung’s S Voice, and Google Now. But, man, do they ever sound a lot like women. Culturally, we think of them as ladies too. (In Old Norse, Siri translates to “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory.”) We assign female pronouns to them, and, in turn, they fold feminine turns of phrase into their robotic and occasionally inane answers to our requests.
If we prize gender diversity in other areas of daily life, why does our tech sound so female?
It would be easy to credit—or fault—male designers, perhaps influenced by science fiction. (Interesting fact: In the original Star Trek TV series, the voice of the Federation’s onboard computers was supplied by creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett.)
But the biggest reason for the female phone fixation rests in social science. “Research indicates there’s likely to be greater acceptance of female speech,” says Karl MacDorman, an associate professor at Indiana University who specializes in human-computer interaction. MacDorman and his team played clips of male and female voices to people of both genders, then asked them to identify which they preferred. The researchers also measured the way participants responded to the voices. In a 2011 paper, they reported that both women and men said female voices came across as warmer. In practice, women even showed a subconscious preference for responding to females; men remained subconsciously neutral.
Why the bias? Stanford University communications professor Clifford Nass, who coauthored the field’s seminal book, Wired for Speech, wrote that people tend to perceive female voices as helping them solve their problems by themselves, while they view male voices as authority figures who tell them the answers to their problems. We want technology to help us, but we also want to be the boss of it, so we are more likely to opt for a female interface.
This inclination suggests that companies will make a better impression on a broader group of customers with a woman’s voice. But not just any voice. It has to align with a brand’s personality. For help with that, companies often turn to Greg Pal, vice president of marketing, strategy, and business development at Nuance Communications, which licenses its library of more than 100 voices. Pal insists that some brands choose male speakers. He turned on his iPhone and pulled up the Domino’s Pizza app, which has an assistant, Dom. He sounded like my high school English teacher—educated and helpful but not overbearing. That’s about right for a brand attempting to appeal to guys ordering pies before the big game.
As voice technology improves, though, designers say diversity will too. Many devices already let you customize a voice interface. Homer Simpson can tell you where to take a left on your GPS device. And Siri can become a sir, if you take the time to reprogram. Want to know how to do it? Ask her. She’ll tell you in her uniquely warm, helpful—and female—tone.