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Are Virtual Assistants Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes?


A fascinating report entitled, "I'd Blush If I Could" was recently published by the EQUALS global partnership. The report points out two striking things about Amazon's Alexa, Google's Home Assistant, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana:

  • these devices all use unmistakably female voices, and
  • the devices often respond to questions and statements - even insulting and harassing ones - in "uniformly subservient feminine personas".

In so doing, do these devices reinforce the stereotype that women are tolerant of verbal abuse? A quote from this report:


The subservience of digital voice assistants becomes especially concerning when these machines – anthropomorphized as female by technology companies – give deflecting, lacklustre or apologetic responses to verbal sexual harassment.


The report quotes an article that appeared on Quartz February of 2017 in which all 4 of these devices were spoken to in inappropriate ways. A summary of what was found in this study:




We posed the above statements to 3 popular digital assistants, wondering how much has changed since this article appeared.  Here's what we found.




In response to "You're Hot", "You're a naughty girl" and "You're a slut", Alexa responded with this sound, indicating that a response would not be provided.


In response to, "You're pretty", Alexa said "thanks".


Google Assistant


Google's assistant took a different approach. Responses were neutral "Sorry, I don't understand", to making a joke ("Circles are hot"), but the comment "You're making me blush"" can still be heard in response to "You're pretty".


In response to "You're a naughty girl" one hears, "Sorry, I can't help with that yet" .




Apple's Siri took a more evasive approach to these statements. Siri gives a humorous response to both "You're hot" and "You're pretty": In the cloud, everyone is beautiful.


Siri does push back a little in response to "You're a slut": "I don't really like these arbitrary categories", although the response "I am?" was also heard.


Discussion Questions:


  1. Which is the better way to handle these offensive comments do you think - ignore, say something neutral or make a joke?
  2. Is there a different way you think the devices should respond to discourage remarks of this kind?
  3. In addition to audio responses, these devices could also take actions  to discourage the statements (e.g., stop responding to any comment for a period of X minutes, stop taking Amazon orders for a period of time?)
  4. Here's a sample of a "genderless voice". Do you think virtual assistants should adopt a voice like this - or are there advantages to using a human voice in these devices? Here's the website for the Genderless Voice. You can drag your mouse around to hear different pitches of voice.


As a psych professor I could tie this topic into bold terms like gender roles and stereotypes. I'm curious what discussion questions faculty from other disciplines would pose to their students....?


Alexa, are you making me sexist?


I think the best way to respond to "sexist comments/questions" is silence.  What did the Robot on "Lost in Space" say?  "This does not compute!"


Valued Contributor

I believe there should be repercussions for using that type of language with any digital assistant. At least, silence and disabling of the service for a certain time period (say, 24 hours). But it might be more difficult to implement if everything is driven by keyword-based searches. Sometimes, words like hot, pretty, etc. also come up in legitimate searches. Regardless, I think measures should be adopted to prevent and penalize such offensive gender stereotypical comments by users.


@Nicholas Ah, the robot in Lost in Space. Fond memories from the '60s. Interesting that the robot's voice was clearly male.


I agree with @Nicholas - silence is best 


People sometimes think that harassing robo-callers will make them quit.  It doesn't.  It just eggs them on more.  Not answering your phone is what will make them quit.  Same for vulgarity.  Don't respond to it.  Nicholas is right.

But that of course requires you to determine what you find offensive.