Alexa doesn’t hear me.
I mean, occasionally, she does respond to my voice the first time I speak, but in general, I cannot get her to hear me clearly and to respond. But to my husband and my (adult) sons, and friends occasionally over for dinner, she always responds swiftly and fairly accurately,
Now don’t get me wrong, I have tracked and tried to go along with the notion of Alexa, which my husband adores, partly because I don’t want to be a slow or poor tech adopter (heaven forbid!) but also because over the course of my life I have learned that to name issues I think might be attributed to gender reflects badly on the naysayer (me!). I have chosen to be slient on the issues of Alexa’s bias because I did not want to be seen as the strident feminist picking a fight. Of course, others have noticed the bias reflected in Alexa (and Siri, and Cortana, and the other unnamed voices of support) for example in January 2019, Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic:
“There’s nothing wrong with providing a service, of course, especially when it’s one that people need and one that a service provider conducts effectively. But women are particularly stereotyped into such roles. In Western culture, women’s traditional role was seen as that of caregiver and homemaker. And even when women entered the workplace, they did so in roles that reinforced that stereotype. Service-oriented jobs like nurses, social workers, cashiers, secretaries, teachers, servers, librarians, customer-service representatives, and housekeepers are disproportionately held by women. Today, manufacturing jobs are on the decline and service jobs are on the rise, but even so, men have been avoiding the new opportunities in the service sector—partly because they are seen as women’s work.
But despite the focus of some like Ian, I have played along. I have laughingly asked my husband to speak for me to Alexa and have acted like “Oh dear I have such a hard to understand voice,” but let’s face it, Alexa’s inability to hear me taps into nearly six decades of irony personally and centuries of feminine group identify about being heard. I have pushed back the blatant sexism I have heard from female colleagues over the years about men speaking over them, taking credit for their ideas, and mansplaining, focused on being an assertive but not too threatening female leader.
But come on, people. Even the technology we are using with voice recognition is biased towards male voices? This is too much. I am tired of laughing it off, fatigued with men not hearing, sick of the mansplaining, and annoyed at the frequent credit taken for ideas and contributions by men all over the world.
Before you put me in the box as the angry women, remember, I am an ally to men. I speak out publicly and often on behalf of men and their needs, their value to our society, their strengths, and how we as women can support them. I even take on the things I have done as a woman to contribute to toxic masculinity in my January 2019 TEDx talk, Loving Men.
But guys, we need your help. And Companies producing voice recognitions software? We need you to notice your own bias, and actively work against it as you are designing machines that are supposed to automate things and increase efficiency.
Alexa can’t hear me and always hears the men around me. Siri frequently misses the words I say but translate the men I know in eerily precise ways. I have been a good sport about it for nearly 60 years. Isn’t it time we actively listen to women’s voices? Oh and by the way, most women I speak to about this report the very same thing.
In my recent book, Bravespace Workplace: Making Your Company Fit for Human Life, I write in the Epilogue about my dreams:
“With the knowledge that people are what make companies great, Bravespace workplaces of tomorrow will be healthy and safe places for people to co-exist…Everyone will be welcomed whether they are insiders or outsiders, for their talents and gifts and for the ways they’re different and for the ways they’re alike.
To get there, we need to start here. Sunil Madhu says in Forbes, “Machines depend on our human inputs, and humans are self-centered by nature, limited by our own knowledge. If humans are the architects, are we designing artificial intelligence that thinks like we do? And if so, can human bias be trained out of AI?
I say yes. But before we can get to the machines we have to start within our own partnerships at work and home. How do we listen? What do we hear?
My husband and I had a blast after watching Rocket Man recently, as lifeline Elton John fans. After the movie, we started a hilarious game using Alexa of “what musician or song shaped each decade of your life.” We laughed out loud as we remembered the Kingston trio, The Monkees, Glen Campbell, Diana Ross and all the years. But the game got old for me when Alexa said, “I’m sorry, I do not understand your request” or took ”Charlie and the MTA” as “I’m sorry I don’t show anything for Sharley and T and A.” It was a small slight, the fact that Alexa heard every song and artist Jim named and missed most of mine.
But an all too familiar one.