Bot Girl and the Patriarchy of Doom
You've certainly met a bot girl before. She’s Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana, and even the neutrally named Google Now or Samsung S Talk.
Ask Siri if she's a woman, and she'll respond, "I'm genderless, like cacti and some species of fish." For a genderless robot, though, Siri sounds eerily female, even employing culturally feminine turns of phrase.
You could chalk it up to consumer preference, or you could look at the actual data that indicates no preference for one sex's voice over the other's among consumers. Regardless, the implication of sexism in the rise of female bots has been written to death on the Internet.
Instead, I want to tackle a different question: Do bot girls make it harder for real women?
At Talos, I’m lucky to work with open-minded individuals, people who I can speak openly with if I’m ever mistreated. But it hasn’t always been that way for me, and our lovely corner of the technology industry is the exception, not the norm. Here, I want to reflect on ways that bot girls create a narrative (and perpetuate an old narrative) that makes it harder for real women to find equality in the workplace, and in the world at large.
(1) Women are assistants.
From just a few years in the workforce, I have sadly common anecdotes: I walk into a meeting that I was invited to, and a man asks me for a beverage. I invite a vendor to meet with me and my male subordinate, but the vendor assumes I'm there to take notes. (Pro tip: This is the quickest way to be shown the door.) I'm giving a presentation, and a man interrupts to ask me about beverages and snacks.
No matter how formidable, how high-ranking, women are assumed to be assistants. What are we teaching our children when all of our "helpers" are bot girls? There's nothing wrong with being a helper, or being generous, or being a host/hostess, but when we program ourselves to think of women as existing for the sole purpose of assisting others... as history shows, we will constantly implore them for snacks. And it’s expletive annoying.
(2) Women's work isn't real work. (You know, the kind you might be compensated for.)
The majority of unpaid labor in the U.S. is done by women. Child care, home management, being "class mom," family event planning, financial planning, and more, all without compensation.
Deeply ingrained societal ideas about "women's work" extend into the workplace, too. Who plans your office parties? Who arranges your Santa Swap? These "fun activities" bleed into out-of-office hours in a world where women still make 80 cents on the dollar when compared with male coworkers. (And for women of color, the wage gap increases.) There's an expectation in many offices that women will do "fun things, not real work" from home, unbilled to the company.
So what picture do you paint when you put a robot on your kitchen island, call her Alexa, and ask her to schedule your dentist appointment? Sure, you paid $180 for her, but now she's your robot domestic worker for life. This only further perpetuates the myth that the type of work your mom might have done for you isn't "real work."
(3) Women don't have rich inner lives or the capacity for deep thought.
Alexa and Siri are robots, no doubt about it, without inner lives or the ability to find creative solutions. We treat them without regard for possible complexity, and rightfully so; after all, they're bots. But, when we give these machines women's voices, when call them "she," we reinforce the frankly mystifying notion that women don't have rich interior lives or equal intelligence to men.
Remember that creative writing class you took in college, the one where a nineteen-year-old guy turned in a story written from his version of the "female perspective" and you wanted to set fire to the classroom and leave the country to start your own no-men-allowed island colony? Empathy is hard-won, and youths are prone to error, but if women writers wrote men the way male writers write women, they'd never make it to press. I don’t believe all men lack the imagination to see a woman in all her complexity, but perhaps some lack the want to try when it’s inconvenient. Alexa and Siri, though, are convenience embodied.
(4) Women are inherently less competent.
What kills me is that our first generation bots are all already women. Companies promise more diversity in bot personas as technology advances, but all that means is that future bots will be both male and smarter.
First generation bots are lacking: Siri is awkward, constantly asks for clarification, and often can't answer complex questions. Alexa butts into the middle of conversations should you mention her name and murders her own jokes with bad timing. Our first bot boy will be a quippy, smooth-talking assistant that can answer riddles, schedule your appointments without asking ten follow-up questions, and anticipate your next request with eerie accuracy, all because Siri and Alexa came first.
The first bot boy will be simply more competent than bot girls of years past. And I hate that narrative, I really do.
And, to think that narrative doesn’t matter, or that Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Amazon, and Apple happened to by coincidence create a small fleet of bot girls, is just plain dumb. The fact that no one saw this as sexism is the entire point.
So, to Silicon Valley: the first of you that creates a bot boy, (preferably one voiced by Jon Hamm,) you will receive my hard earned dollars. I will buy that bot and put him on my counter. I’ll take him in my car. I’ll keep him by my bed. But until then, this real woman’s pocketbook is closed.