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May 30 2019

United Nations Deems Siri and Alexa Tools of the Patriarchy

by Charlotte Hays

Just when you thought there was nothing about identity politics that could not surprise you, we have this: a United National report finds that Siri, the Apple voice helper, and Amazon’s Alexa are tools of the patriarchy.

The Wall Street Journal notes:

The revelation about this digital plot for male dominance comes in a 146-page report from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in cooperation with the German government and the EQUALS Skills Coalition, a partnership of governments, businesses and nonprofits.

The authors note with alarm that “most leading voice assistants are exclusively female or female by default, both in name and in sound of voice.” This includes Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft ’s Cortana. The report says that these voices send “a signal that women are obliging, docile, eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like ‘hey’ or ‘OK.’” Read on, they’re rolling.

If you tell Cortana she’s hot, the report frets, she’ll quip that “beauty is in the photoreceptors of the beholder.” Digital assistants “greet verbal abuse with catch-me-if-you-can flirtation” and “give deflecting, lacklustre, or apologetic responses to verbal sexual harassment,” the report says. This response fails “to encourage or model, let alone insist on, healthy communications about sex or sexual consent.”

Good to know that the United Nations is tackling the important issues that matter to the fate of humankind.

But this frankly puzzles me:

The report identifies still more signs of digital oppression: “The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it. It honours commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility.” This reinforces “gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment.”

I am trying to imagine how Siri could gain more agency?

But there is a serious underlying issue:

All of this is apparently a symptom of a lack of women in tech jobs. The U.N. wants countries to redress this with a combination of compulsory tech education for women, gender quotas in tech industries, and (of course) government funding.

The report, silly as it is, reminds of just how off-base U.N. prescriptions often are: quotas for voice assistants, and, more important. quotas for real women, aren’t the solution.

Capitalism and better economies, not quotas, will help women in developing economies. How very typical of the U.N. this report is. Sad.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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