How voice assistants reinforce the tech gender gap

Voice assistants are becoming commonplace in most homes and offices, but using women's voices for most devices may be doing more harm than good.

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Smart voice assistants are becoming staples in consumer life, with 47.3 million US adults having access to the devices in their homes. Working professionals are even taking advantage of the smart technology in their office environments, using this technology to boost productivity and improve in-office communications, reported our sister site ZDNet.

SEE: Amazon Alexa: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic Premium)

While these smart assistants offer a slew of benefits to users, not all impacts of the devices are positive, according to Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association. 

The major digital voice assistants—Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant—all have one major default in common: A female voice. While Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana do allow users to change the voice to male, the devices default to a female tone, which is a problem, as these voices reinforce the stereotype of women being "obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers," according to a recent report from the United Nations. 

Hey Alexa, what is the tech gender gap?

Women are at a disadvantage to their male counterparts in the enterprise, with the tech industry being among the worst offenders. Men are offered more money for the same role as women 60% of the time, and despite slight improvements, the tech industry's gender pay gap persists. 

Between a lack of career growth opportunities and poor salaries, in comparison to men, many working women often end up leaving their tech jobs

"Women are underrepresented at every level in the workplace, and this disparity is most evident in the C-suite. In fact, women occupy only 23% of c-suite roles nationwide," said Kanouse. "Female voice assistants could pose another barrier for women looking to advance in their career by reinforcing the notion that they should hold administrative assistant roles as opposed to senior leadership."

The psychological reasoning behind female voice assistants is that they are "better received" over a male voice, coming off more agreeable and sympathetic, Kanouse said. 

However, women have been the main occupants of administrative roles for decades. Currently, approximately 95% of administrative assistants are women. 

"So the question is, do we find women's voices more agreeable because we're used to having women assist us?" Kanouse posited. "Even though the choice to use a woman's voice is typically grounded in research, it's alarming that many people are more comfortable with a woman assisting them—and by extension, more comfortable telling a woman what to do."

How female voice assistants further the problem

While companies attempt to improve diversity and inclusion efforts, the majority of women (67%) still don't feel like they are taken seriously in the office. Being underestimated and outnumbered in the workplace bolsters feelings of imposter syndrome within women, which is prying the gender gap open even further. 

Voice assistants are causing the same effect, Kanouse noted. "The prevalence of female voice assistants in the office may feed into men's subconscious biases against women in the workplace, making it more difficult for women to overcome these obstacles," she said.

"I'm sure many people will argue that if a worker hears Alexa's voice in the office, they won't treat their female colleagues any differently," Kanouse said. "However, this phenomena can have a subconscious affect that's more dangerous than if the worker was aware of this behavioral change—especially for men. Subconscious biases are harder to squash than conscious ones. Stereotypes like these matter as they can affect how young girls and young women see themselves and the opportunities that are available to them in the future." 

For more, check out How to launch mentorship programs for women in tech on TechRepublic. 
 

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