Hey Siri. What is the Key to More Gender Equal Technology Solutions?

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The international attention received by ‘I’d Blush if I Could’, a newly released publication from UNESCO and the EQUALS Skills Coalition, has helped highlight the severity of gender divides in digital skills. Around the world, women and girls are falling behind men and boys when it comes to cultivating the skills and competencies needed to harness the power digital technology.
Today women are:

  • 25 per cent less likely than men to know how to use digital technology for basic purposes like sending text messages,
  • 4 times less likely to know how to programme computers
  • 13 times less likely to file for a technology patent.

When it comes to employment, women hold less than one quarter of all digital sector jobs. Even the women who do start tech jobs leave them at twice the rate of men.
Despite nearly a decade of efforts to improve gender balance in the technology sector, leading companies like Google and Microsoft have just one female worker for every three male workers, and four male technical workers for every female technical worker. The proportion of women in leadership positions is even lower: just 15% across large firms.
This numerical data is important, but it can obscure why these divides are so troubling. After all, technology development seems to accelerate with each passing year. For the most part, we like our smartphones, social networks, and apps.
Does it really matter that the companies and teams building them are so male-dominated?
Why Female Voices for Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri?
To understand what is at stake, consider the recent proliferation of natural language processing digital voice assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana. The AI teams working on these technologies are particularly gender imbalanced, even by technology industry standards. Analysis we conducted for the publication suggests that companies commonly have 10 male AI developers for every female developer.
Starting in the early 2010s these teams and companies started giving women’s voices and women’s personalities and back stories to technology that slavishly answers questions, turns on lights, sets the thermostat, changes the music, and places orders for more toilet paper. The fawning obsequiousness demonstrated by these assistants, even in the face of verbal abuse, is hard-coded.
When users called Siri a b*tch, she would respond, “I’d blush if I could”. While Siri and ‘her’ sister voice assistants now reply to the insults like these more flatly (”I don’t know how to respond to that”), their submissiveness in the face of insults remains unchanged.
Research suggests that these faux-female assistants socialize people to expect real women and girls to leap to attention in response to terse greetings, fulfill requests with upbeat obedience and have endless reserves of patience.
Despite these problems, technology companies are rushing to place these feminized assistants in everything from microwave ovens to security systems. Work by the EQUALS Research Group has shown that the vast majority of voice assistants are either women exclusively or female by default.
The reach of just four of these assistants—Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri—extends to over two billion devices, and foresight firms project that beginning as early as next year many people will have more conversations with technology mimicking women than actual women. With almost no public debate, we have woken up in a world brimming with servile technology that projects a female veneer.
Greater Female Participation in Technology Development
Greater female participation in technology is necessary to resolve complex questions about whether, when and how to ‘gender’ technology that is increasingly capable of sustaining unstructured conversation.
In a preview of voice technologies to come, Google recently announced a service called Duplex that allows users to instruct a voice assistant to make appointments on their behalf. The assistant will call restaurants, hair salons and other businesses autonomously in order to arrange meeting times, dates and places, and, going forward, perhaps even pricing.
The assistant is unique because it can speak with a voice that is indistinguishable from a human voice. This and similar technology is quickly moving humanity closer to a future where you, your family and your friends will —like it or not— probably engage not only with your personal AI assistant (my Siri) but other people’s AI assistants as well (someone else’s Siri). Lest you think this is a passing fad, some consulting firms project that “average people” will have more conversations with voice assistants than with their spouse in the near future.
Having more women steer the design and expression of this proliferating technology will help ensure that it promotes gender equality or, at the very least, prevents an exacerbation of existing inequalities.
Is placing more women in technology teams a panacea? Of course not, but having more female leaders and engineers in companies like Apple will help lay foundations for more informed deliberations about the gender consequences of technology products and services.
It does not take a great leap of imagination to assume that Amazon’s Alexa technology might, for example, respond to questions about ‘her’ weight with something other than “I’m more sass than mass”, if Amazon’s C-Suite executives and AI development teams were staffed by women.
Indeed, in this scenario, Alexa might express itself with a voice that is neither male nor female, or perhaps the technology would prompt consumers to select their preference for a male or female voice, instead of presuming all consumers want a female voice.
Tellingly, the group most vocal about the urgency for greater female representation in the technology sector are women already working the industry. In testimony to the United States Congress, Li Fei-Fei, a co-director of Stanford University’s Human-Centered AI Institute and one of the few female leaders in her field, said,
“[Technology] is bias in, bias out… If we wake up 20 years from now and we see the lack of diversity in our tech and leaders and practitioners [that we see today], that would be my doomsday scenario.”
Governments and other stakeholders must invest in efforts to help women and girls cultivate the advanced digital skills they will need to work in the technology industries that are remaking modern life. This process starts with gender-equal education in fields like computer science that have, thus far, shown alarming proficiency at excluding female learners. Ultimately, these efforts will help ensure our technology reflects and accommodates the rich diversity of our societies.
Mark West is the lead author of “I’d Blush if I Could“, a new UNESCO publication produced through a collaboration with Germany and the EQUALS Skill Coalition. The views here reflect those of the author.
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