“Alexa, Are You A Feminist?”: Voice Assistants Vs Gender Equality

by Bhanvi Satija

“Alexa, play some music.”

If you own an Amazon Echo device, the name ‘Alexa’ will be familiar. Alexa is Amazon’s virtual voice assistant, first introduced as part of its smart speaker in 2014.

The company has since expanded its Echo products, referred to as the ‘Echo Family’.

This interesting choice of words reflects Amazon’s attempt to make their technology products more humanlike, and the strategy seems to work.

Emily Roper, a postgraduate student at Newcastle University, has been using the Echo device since September 2017.

“My flatmates and I have a sort of emotional attachment with the device now. It’s like she lives with us and is part of our family,” she says.

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Picture by Stock Catalog on Flickr

Interestingly, an assistant which is expected to do basic chores – play some music, set an alarm, read the news – has a female persona. Its feminine name is a homage to the ancient Egyptian Library of Alexandria.

The feminine traits of Amazon’s Alexa don’t seem to bother its users. Emily repeatedly referred to the Echo device as ‘her’ instead of ‘it’. “We are all quite attached to her and I don’t think we would be if she had a male voice,” she says.

Kush Damji, an electrical engineering student at Imperial College London, says:

“A male voice for the device would be weird. I use both GoogleHome and Amazon devices at home, and both have a female voice. That’s what we are used to hearing.”

Amazon is not the only company to have a deliberately feminine name for its voice assistants. Tech companies Microsoft and Apple have assistants named Cortana and Siri respectively. Together with Google Assistant, all three assistants have feminine voices.

Over the last two holiday seasons, the devices that use Alexa as an assistant have been Amazon’s top selling products. They do not release specific figures for the UK, but a spokeswoman says: “We have sold millions of echo devices globally.”

Alexa is your best friend

At Amazon’s Alexa division, a team of people works on making it more humane. According to a report called ‘Alexa is my new BFF’ published by Cornell University in May 2017: “Personification of Alexa is associated with increased levels of satisfaction, regardless of technological problems or function of the device. Simply put, people who love her, love the Echo.”

This personality team is responsible for Alexa’s new feminist stance. If you ask your Alexa device “Alexa, are you a feminist?”, it is likely to give you one of these responses: “Yes, as is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society,” or “Yes, I believe in gender equality.”

A spokeswoman from Amazon UK says:

“Alexa is a self-identified feminist (ask her!) and a proponent of human rights in general. If there’s an opportunity for Alexa to encourage customers to think about something a little deeper, we will always consider taking it.”

The device’s stance on feminism and gender equality is an example of artificial intelligent (AI) programmers getting something right. As AI programs and voice assistants become more popular and permeate our everyday life, it’s crucial that they reinforce progressive social norms and values.

Just an item on a checklist?

However, it is important that these developments are not sold as solutions to problems like gender discrimination. Alexa, even as a self-identified feminist, still embodies the inherent sexism that is responsible for the device being female in the first place.

“There are so many things that tech companies can do apart from ticking a box off saying that ‘yes Alexa is a feminist’,” says Magda Oldziejewska, Fundraising and Tech Coordinator at The Feminist Library in London.

“You can give agency to a piece of technology, which is ridiculous enough in itself, but I think that this tells us what the tech industry is and- more importantly- is not doing for women.”  

If you ask Alexa what it means by gender equality, it either provides a web search result of the term or responds: “Sorry, I am not sure what you are asking.”

alexa project

Oldziejewska says: “For most companies, diversity and inclusivity is a tick box – and that’s why it doesn’t work. Because they have to do more and they have to actually make an effort to find out what women need in order to make their workplace more inclusive.”

The argument that this could simply be an item on a checklist for Amazon cannot be ruled out. While the personality team for Alexa is headed by three women (Michelle Riggen-Ransom, Farah Houston and Beth Holmes), it is well known that the company has, at most, an average record for hiring women.

It has only one woman, Senior Vice President of Human Resources Beth Galetti, in its most senior group of managers who report directly to Jeff Bezos.

In April 2018, Amazon UK’s Gender pay gap report revealed that it pays women an average of six per cent less than men across its local workforce. Globally, only 25 per cent of its staff in management positions are female. Amazon and all other major tech companies need to do more than just empower Alexa, if they really care about women and their representation in the industry.

Featured Image by Bhanvi Satija

 

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