The Digital Voice Default
Ask most UX design professionals why they opt for female voices, and they’ll usually cite practicality. They’ll say that user research proves that everyone wants to get information from a woman, but the data doesn’t actually bear that out. Or they’ll argue that men and women hear female voices more clearly—again, a view that the numbers do not support. They may throw their hands up in frustration, claiming that the voice’s gender is simply a matter of stakeholder preference they have to design around.
While stakeholder preference might sound like a perfectly good reason at first, it hides an ugly reality. To make this clear, let me tell you a story about a talented young woman who I managed. She designed voice features for our clients’ prototypes. Although she created a voice that was meant to be genderless, the client kept referring to the voice in feminine terms. In other words, he heard what he expected to hear.
However, had that client hailed from a culture other than the United States, he might not have responded well to a female voice assistant. Arabic, Dutch, French, and British iPhones default to a male voice for Siri. Plus, BMW learned the hard way that female voices aren’t always the right route to take when German drivers of its 5 Series vehicles complained about “taking directions from a woman.” Yes, really.
So what’s going on? If female voices are neither universally preferred nor clearer to the listener, why do so many technology companies keep using them by default?
What’s Gender Got to Do with It?
Consider again that different cultures prefer digital voices of different genders. These preferences are learned. What about a society might predispose its members to prefer an assistant that has a female voice?
For the sake of simplicity, let’s think about Americans. What is noticeable about the list of female-dominated occupations in the US? They’re all low-paying, low-status roles such as service workers, office secretaries, domestic workers, and teachers. In other words, they’re the helpers, not the leaders.