Last year, we had a guest join us for breakfast. Her name was Alexa.
Each morning with Alexa began the same — Alexa, What’s the news?, How’s the weather? — until our idle chatter was drowned out by my twins:
"Alexa, play ‘Old Town Road’."
"Alexa, turn up the volume."
"Alexa, No! Play ‘You’ll Be Back’"
"‘Alexa, stop! Be quiet!’"
Their directives often ended the same: Alexa apologizing — I’m sorry, I didn’t understand. She’d served them well and when she reached the end of her capabilities, she would gracefully shoulder the blame.
Something about the interplay didn’t sit right.
Beyond how she dealt with my children’s boorish behavior — rewarding them for their demands, rather than demanding their courtesy – I was increasingly uncomfortable with ‘her’: this polite, cheerful, subservient woman we’d inadvertently invited to our table. I was uncomfortable with the fact that she was, despite her digital dressing, a ‘she.’
This has been a good year to think hard about gender — its social construct, power dynamics, and material legacy. This supposedly binary dimension of the human condition has been thrust into the spotlight to be interrogated with intention, deconstructed, and built back up with fresh perspective and new words. As a Midwestern girl who has never clung too closely to gender norms, a tech exec trying hard to build inclusive products, and a mom of two children of different biologic sex, I have to say — it’s about damn time.
We are heavily influenced by what we see and hear, by our everyday surroundings. Experience normalizes behaviors and stereotypes; it habituates us, and relatively quickly. That normalization curve can have a powerful influence on positive change — seeing the US Women’s National Team win the World Cup — again! — is normalizing athletic achievement independent of gender. Nike CEO Mark Parker shared that their jersey is now Nike’s best-selling soccer jersey. Boys are proudly sporting their favorite women’s jersey. So, yeah, progress.
But progress is elastic, not linear. We stretch and then rebound. This is a phenomenon called moral licensing, a depressing tendency we all have to retreat to undesirable behaviors right after we do good. So, you wear a US Women’s Soccer jersey with pride, but you also wear it as a psychological pass. It’s a demonstration to yourself that you aren’t sexist. Which is exactly when you reveal you are.
While there are very real things to celebrate — glass ceilings being broken, women ramping up participation in the public sector, transgender individuals voted into state legislature, women athletes honored as equals — we have to be aware of our very human tendency to fall back to old ways.
Which is where I come back to Alexa, ready and waiting in my kitchen. And in yours. And to Siri, Cortana, and any of the mostly-women-by-default digital assistants who have stepped into our homes and offices and pledged to make our lives a little easier.
To be fair to their creators, it turns out we prefer help from women. According to Clifford Nass, the late Stanford professor who co-authored a seminal book on voice-technology, Wired for Speech, we perceive woman-presenting voices as helpful and empowering, enabling us to solve our own problems. We interpret male-sounding voices as authoritative, telling us what to do. The promise of helpful technology, and specifically, technology we are comfortable we control, simply sounds better when dished up by a lady. If you follow the line that the customer is always right, then we should continue down this path. It’s the default for a reason.
But, before we follow our own preference blindly, let’s understand what that path entails. According to a recent UNESCO report, bots that present as women promote harmful gender stereotypes, reinforcing long-standing perceptions of women as both obsequious and servile. The history of women in pink collar jobs — playing service roles in the workplace, even when their official roles are not administrative — re-enforced. That service bias comes with economic consequences. It reinforces the pay gap, not portended to close until 2119.
At the end of last year, 2.5 billion assistants were in our pockets and living rooms. They’re scheduled to outnumber humans by 2023. We have to ask ourselves, now and with purpose: Who are they teaching us to become?
I have a material stake in this question. I’m not only a consumer of technology, but a creator, as well. As a leader of design at Intuit, where my charter is to power prosperity for small businesses and the self-employed, I get to decide just how these bots should behave.
From the onset, we wanted our bot, the QuickBooks Assistant, to be gender neutral. We wanted an ‘expert’ bot who would offer up their own point-of-view. We’re working in a space — finances, taxes, accounting — where our customers seek not just answers, but guidance. They’re fearful of making the wrong choice. Those choices come with consequences they can little afford. They’re often not sure of the right next question. As many will tell you, they don’t know what they don’t know.
So far, leaning into this expertise and neutrality has been relatively simple — prompts to engage, tonal choice, careful pronouns, the written word — as our assistant lives entirely within the digital interface, responsive to ‘your’ voice, but without an audible one of their own. As we break outside of this form, we will have bigger challenges to confront, ones that will thrust the question of gender into the foreground — things like the sound of their voice and even their name — with all of the gender trappings those choices bear. Customer preference tells us strongly to take one path. But their preference doesn’t have to look like our choice. This is one of those areas where having a point of view can drive real change.
For now, Alexa's been shifted to my study, removed from the family sphere and tucked into a place where she and I can safely commune. And, here I sit with her, imagining how we should shape this increasingly ubiquitous technology not just to make our lives easier, but to make us better.
Leslie Witt is VP of Design at Intuit, where she leads the design team to re-imagine the products, services and institutions that shape our financial lives.