Owners of the new Apple iPhone 4S are no doubt becoming familiar with the new voice-activated feature, dubbed “Siri.”
Listening to the computer voice, it’s clear that Siri is a “she,” not a “he” … which has some journalists thinking about the fact that computer voices are overwhelmingly female.
There are some exceptions. The famous “You’ve got mail!” voice from AOL’s dial-up days is one. Plus the fact that nearly all voice-activated features in Germany utilize a male voice.
But otherwise, it’s nearly universal that these voices are female. The question is why?
Journalist Brandon Griggs, writing for CNN recently, reports that “one answer may lie in biology. Scientific studies have shown that people generally find women’s voices to be more pleasing than men’s.”
Clifford Nass, a professor of communications and computer science at Stanford University who has studied this topic closely, contends that it’s much easier to find a female voice that people like rather than a male voice.
“It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices,” Nass maintains. As proof, he cites a study in which fetuses were found to react to the sound of their mother’s voice … but not to their father’s.
I think another reason may be acclimatization. During World War II, my mother worked in air traffic control at the Parris Island Marine Corps Base. There were only women working these positions, and for a very practical reason: Their voices really stood out in the cockpit among the male pilots.
And what about telephone operators? For decades, they were nearly100% female voices.
Beginning in the 1980s, when auto makers first began installing automated voice prompts in cars (remember “Lights are on” and “Your door is ajar”?), consumer research found that drivers overwhelmingly preferred female voices to male ones. So is it any wonder that nearly all GPS navigation systems today have female-sounding speech as the default voice?
Not surprisingly, there are some people who contend that using a female voice as a “virtual assistant” is sexist in nature. But I’m not sure we can attribute “overt” sexism to the choices companies have made in this regard. Like with the auto companies, these decisions are probably based on market research.
So at best, it’s possible that the choice reflects some gender stereotyping that already exists in the general public.
On balance, I think it’s a positive that so many computer voices are female. After all, these voices have been selected based on attributes like warmth, friendliness and competence.
If that makes it sexist, so be it … but it puts most of the gold stars on the female side of the ledger, that’s for sure!