If your virtual assistant wasn't gendered, would you speak to your device differently? According to this 2019 UN study, the answer, for many, is yes. The paper posits that voice assistants, most of which are gendered female, perpetuate problematic stereotypes of subservience and biases against women — even at an unconscious level.
But what if women were the ones designing the voice assistants to begin with? Do factors like gender impact the way the products themselves are brought to market?
To answer this question, we asked four women who work in tech how they think putting women at the helm would change the way digital voice assistants are built.
Donna Lamar, Global Executive Creative Director at Twitter
“If digital assistants were designed by women, I wouldn't have to repeat myself. Or, instead of being so insistent when I opt to change directions en route, it would compliment me for being savvy enough to make my own decisions based on real-time traffic I see. If digital assistants were designed by women, mood could be determined by tone of voice and the DA could respond with what's actually needed — patience, soothing or seething. Finally, I wouldn't have to repeat myself. Have I said that?"
Jen Chan, Creators Product Lead at Pinterest
"As a mom, I'm always looking for spare hands to help carry groceries, entertain the baby, or put away laundry. If digital assistants were predominantly designed by women, I'd like to think that the form factor would be a lot different. Instead of a nondescript device sitting on a shelf, it'd be a customizable, voice-activated helper on wheels that could maneuver around the house and pitch in wherever needed (think Rosie from The Jetsons with less metal). Additionally, I juggle a lot of mental load for my family like making doctor and dentist appointments or filling out forms for daycare. It would be great if I could just forward the email to my digital assistant and then have it actively remind me or my husband when important deadlines are approaching. We've definitely missed a few between two jobs and two kids!"
Leslie Witt, VP of Design at Intuit
"If women were fully in charge of designing the world, they’d lean into the communal and the actual — start with observation and empathy, and then query the crowd for their creativity, needs and inspiration. Digital assistants would be relational, context-aware, anticipatory, and boundary-less. They would have a partnership mindset, not limiting themselves to influence within the constraints of their platform of origin. Their ability to deliver would be based on the connections they made across divides, communicating and developing relationships with ‘other’ assistants, working together toward common goals. Credit would go to the assist. They'd focus on masterminding logistics, reinforcing routine, and shepherding emotional needs. They’d measure themselves by the things they’d aided in getting done - the number of items crossed off to-do lists, the anticipated, avoided and resolved conflicts, the ease and joy they’d helped bring to all of our dinner-tables. They’d use their ever-listening presence to ensure our lives had been made both easier and better."
Bethany Bongiorno, CEO of Humane, Inc.
"When a team lacks diversity they are at risk of assuming that their collective experience represents that of all humans. If that team does not include women, by default they are at risk of not building for the human experience of 50% of the world’s population — and, by extension, potentially 50% of their customer base. The industry is chasing a vision of a digital assistant that is deeply personal — one that understands, anticipates, adapts, and is innately human. We won’t have a shot at this unless we start with diverse teams — inclusive of gender, race, experience, and perspective. Having more women as part of the design process for things like digital assistants will bring us one step closer to building the right solution for humanity overall."