At Hartley-Stone, we take our daily office playlist selection very seriously – mostly so we can choose music that we can all agree on, rather than on the ambient zen favoured by our Studio Manager (to be fair he has great taste in music generally).
We installed an Amazon Echo this week, so we can now ask Alexa to skip any questionable songs.
However, the addition of our new AI team member has triggered a big debate as to whether it’s acceptable to call her (it?) ‘she’, or whether by doing so, we are reinforcing the gender stereotypes and the unconscious bias that seem to exist around voice assistants.
Maybe we’re overthinking it, but if so many of us are interacting with these devices regularly, then the way they stand to affect our ideas about gender really, really matters.
It’s really a conversation about audience. Digital assistants are just one factor in a technology industry essentially built by men, for an audience of men.
Gender bias in technology isn’t a new debate in the slightest of course, and happily it’s one that’s now starting to see genuine research come to light. In the case of digital assistants, a recent UNESCO study conflates the attitude towards digital assistants as servile female secretaries with the achingly large western world digital skills gap for women.
An absence of women in technological design has already led to Apple’s health app initially being unable to track menstrual cycles, to the revelation that the entire historical concept of air conditioning is geared specifically towards the average body temperature of men, but not women.
In marketing terms, the industry has definitely begun to improve since meltdowns like IBM’s “Hack a hairdryer” campaign of 2015, but at Hartley-Stone, we believe there’s never too much that can be done to remember IT is an industry that serves everybody, and the way we speak to our audiences needs to reflect it.
As we move to respect our new Alexa in non-binary terms, or even as the object it really is, we’re also remembering the importance of considering who we’re talking to in our work – their needs, experiences, world view and identity.
Technology is truly for everyone, as it makes all of our daily worlds go round, and for us, part of the secret sauce of Hartley-Stone’s approach is always being mindful that the recipient of our messaging may lie within the traditional templated persona of a Dilbert cartoon.