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UK Insights

The real women in Artificial Intelligence

Digital 15.11.2018 / 15:00

women-AI

As adoption of digital assistants grows, Kantar assesses how women feel about AI – and the role their voices play in this ecosystem.

As part of our #WhatWomenWant? initiative, we take a look at how women feel about artificial intelligence, and why every digital assistant seems to be a woman.

The number of people using a voice search powered digital assistant is expected to skyrocket to over 1.8bn people by 2021. Brands are also increasingly looking to AI to help deliver better customer experiences. As this market grows, the question many brands are trying to answer is ‘what should our digital assistant sound like’?

According to recent Lightspeed research, the preference from consumers is for a female voice that sounds ‘mature’, ‘kind’ and ‘wise’.

The sound of support

Today’s digital assistants are overwhelmingly programmed to be female: with Alexa, Cortana, Holly, and Siri (in the US), and fictionally in films Samantha (Her), Joi (Blade Runner 2049) and Marvel’s AIs, FRIDAY (Avengers: Infinity War) and Karen (Spider-Man: Homecoming).

“I’m female in character,” Amazon’s Alexa will respond if you ask her if she is a woman. Google, Apple and Microsoft’s voice assistants will all tell you they’re genderless… in voices that sound very much like women. Google named its voice assistant neutrally “Assistant,” yet it now has a feminine voice – one the user, for the moment, cannot change. “We are thinking about how to expand beyond a female voice,” a Google spokeswoman has said.

Why are digital assistants overwhelmingly female? “It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” the Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass, told CNN in 2011. “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”

The voice consumers want?

Research by Lightspeed shows that consumers do certainly want a human voice for their digital assistants: 68% agreed in a recent survey in the UK. Both men and women also expressed a preference for a woman’s voice (60% of men preferred a female voice, 58% of women preferred a female voice).

Other key attributes were that the voice should sound mature (56%), kind (34%), wise (32%), unemotional (29%) and serious (25%). 13% of men surveyed wanted the voice to sound ‘flirty’ compared to 3% of women.

Mindshare has also looked into this topic, using brain-screening technology to observe 105 subject’s subconscious reaction to male and female voice assistants. It found subjects of all ages and genders were 32% more likely to react positively to female voices. The response to female voices among younger respondents (under 35) was found to be even more pronounced, with the female voice proving twice (103%) as approachable as the male voice. Younger respondents also found the female voice more compelling (22%). In contrast, older respondents found the male voice more compelling (25%).

So it makes sense, perhaps, that we have helpful women speaking back from our devices. Most brands developing this sort of technology will use focus groups to rate recordings of actors’ voices, scoring them on how well they convey certain attributes: warmth, friendliness and competence are on the list. Of course, there could be a link to the fact that, in our culture, secretaries and administrative assistants are still most frequently women. Unconscious bias at play?

Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality commented, “Voices intended to convey authority (such as voice-over narration in films) tend to be male. So yes, probably these compliant female robot voices reinforce gender stereotypes, not just because they serve the user but because the technology itself is about communication and relationships (areas that women are presumed to be good at). Most such decisions are probably the result of market research, so they may be reflecting gender stereotypes that already exist in the general public.”

Gender and AI

Beyond voice tech, men and women are responding to the growing use of AI in everyday life in different ways. Recent data from Kantar Consulting’s Global Monitor shows that globally 58% of women are frightened by the impact AI will have on society versus 46% of men, and 37% of women worry about “getting left behind by technology” versus 31% of men.

With women driving 70-80% of all household purchase decisions, it is imperative for brands to grow their presence while addressing these concerns and bridging the huge gender gap in technology access and usage.

Source : Lightspeed, Kantar Consulting

Editor's Notes

Come along to our exhibition celebrating the last 100 years of marketing to women, What Women Want?

Which products, campaigns and adverts were considered empowering to women at each point in history? As we mark the centenary of the first women being granted the vote in the UK, what can brands learn from these standout examples? 

This is an ambitious Kantar UK initiative that is open to all from 21 - 29 November in London. Find out more at https://www.whatwomenwant.uk.com/

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