Just as smart phones went from being pricey, specialty gadgets to ubiquitous today, some tech industry leaders believe artificially intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) could be the next innovation to transform society and further embed technology into the fabric of our lives. Major companies are competing to design the most appealing IPA, and commentators are taking note of a trend: IPAs are commonly given female names and voices.

Unsurprisingly, some detect the vile stink of sexism in this phenomenon: Americans—particularly all those white men at the helm of major tech firms—still see women as inferior, there to serve as men’s helpmates and do the chores others won’t. Writing in The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance describes how these digital assistants work, with users commanding the machines to do their bidding, and wonders: “if we’re going to live in a world in which we’re ordering our machines around so casually, why do so many of them have to have women’s names?”

LaFrance rejects the machine creators’ explanation that people tend to prefer women’s voices, and considers how it may be an attempt to make the technological devices less threatening. Yet she seems to suspect that the real culprit is the patriarch’s fierce grip on our culture. She writes:

". . . Perhaps this is an example of the objectification of women taken to its logical extension. . . . Even without teasing apart all the possible reasons for the tendency to assign gendered names to machines, it’s reasonable to suggest traditional power structures have a lot to do with it."

On one level, LaFrance is right: Certainly, the trend of feminizing these helpful devices isn’t an accident. Presumably it is an outgrowth of age-old expectations about the different roles of men and women. This could accurately be described as sexism—in that it stems from different perceptions about women and men based on their sex. But that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily nefarious, limiting women’s prospects or creating an expectation of women’s inferiority.

In fact, our preference for women to be involved in the more intimate aspects of our personal lives could be seen as bias against men, rather than the other way around. In his book, Why Men Earn More, Dr. Warren Farrell makes this case:

"The combination of women’s fear of male sexuality and men’s desire for female sexuality leads to discrimination against hiring men—not only as massage therapists and ob-gyns, but as nurses, dental hygienists, nursery school teachers, and, apparently, even as elementary school teachers."

This phenomenon was captured in a Seinfeld episode: George and Jerry recoil from the idea of a male massage therapist, and Elaine doesn’t want one either. The 1990s-sitcom’s homophobic subtext seems outdated today, but the general bias still rings true: If an artificially-intelligent device is going to share our bedrooms, play music at our request while we shower, listen to us talk, and help us find treatments and cures for whatever unpleasant medical condition afflicts us, most people will feel less inhibited if the entity seems feminine rather than masculine.

Our instinct to associate men’s voices with authority and a potential threat may be a symptom of our history of men controlling the reins of power. But that’s not always an asset. Given that many customers already are uncomfortable about the Big Brother, omnipresent, spying aspect of these intelligent devices, it’s no surprise that a woman’s voice would be used in the hope of ameliorating those concerns.

These preferences, and their association with male and female characteristics, may shift over time. Fathers today are more involved in hands-on parenting than they were a generation ago—changing diapers, giving baths, applying bandages, and soothing rashes. Perhaps the next generation will be just as comfortable with a male voice in the bathroom as a woman’s. Already, many of these devices allow users to select an alternative voice and name, and as they develop further, greater levels of customization are sure to follow, which will probably mean there will be more “male” IPAs in the mix.

In the meantime, women shouldn’t presume that anytime people associate a technology or event with the feminine that it’s evidence of an evil form of sexism that degrades women and holds back our progress. Women are associated with positive qualities, after all: with kindness, compassion, understanding, and resourcefulness. Recognizing the value of these traditionally feminine qualities doesn’t mean the public can’t also accept women as strong, smart, and tough. We simply like our mothers and the nurturing qualities we associate with women. It’s no wonder—and certainly not an insult—that marketers are trying to associate their products with such a powerfully appealing brand.