iPhone vs. iPhone 3G by Ricky Romero (used under creative commons)

Quick hit: Siri Is Sexist

Amanda Marcotte has noticed a discomfiting pattern in how Siri can and can’t help you

Initially, it may seem like a happy coincidence that programmers chose a female voice for Siri, but once you actually begin to use the software, a discomforting possibility arises. After all, Siri is basically an electronic version of a secretary, who schedules appointments and looks things up for you. In fact, Siri behaves much like a retrograde male fantasy of the ever-compliant secretary: discreet, understanding, willing to roll with any demand a man might come up with, teasingly accepting of dirty jokes. Oh yeah, and mainly indifferent to the needs of women.

I’d been hearing some tales on twitter about the strange things that Siri can and can’t help you with, and some of those tongue-in-cheek responses are good for a laugh, but when a pattern starts to emerge where the phone can find you pharmacies to sell you viagra but not birth control, you have to start asking some more serious questions.

The problem isn’t that anyone involved with this hates women. The problem is that they just don’t think about women very much. Siri’s programmers clearly imagined a straight male user as their ideal and neglected to remember the nearly half of iPhone users who are female. That the tech company that’s the standard-bearer for progressive, innovative, user-friendly technology can’t bother to care about the concerns of half the human race speaks to a sexism that’s so interwoven into the fabric of our society that it’s nearly invisible. It’s a sexism that often only reveals itself in the absurd, such as when you’re asking a phone what it would take for you to get a little love around here.

[Full article here]

But there’s a much more damning report on how Siri fails with respect to reproductive health and related queries here. (trigger warning: Siri is outright offensive when you try to get help in an abusive or rape situation)

iPhone vs. iPhone 3G by Ricky Romero (used under creative commons)

iPhone vs. iPhone 3G by Ricky Romero (used under creative commons)

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About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at http://terri.toybox.ca.

18 thoughts on “Quick hit: Siri Is Sexist

  1. Kris Rudin

    Siri is sexist because it was created by men who “just didn’t think” about women’s issues. THIS IS WHY WE NEED MORE WOMEN IN SOFTWARE. How many other products could be improved simply by having a more diverse team??

  2. Kris

    The point about the voice being female is rather undercut when you find out that Siri’s voice is male in other countries.

    1. Terri

      Given that the argument insinuates that the programmers and designers of Siri may have had a bit of a stereotype in mind, and that many (probably the majority) of those programmers would be working in English-speaking environments… I don’t think it’s undercut quite as much as it would be if you were talking about internalized stereotypes in the worldwide user base.

      1. Kris

        But it’s male in the UK and Australia, both of which are English-speaking and would be presumed to have those same stereotypes.

        I just think the gender of the voice is a red herring. It’s just random, or it was chosen for reasons other than making Siri “your personal 1950’s throwback secretary.” It’s a silly argument, and it undermines the more valid complaints about the search results.

        1. Terri

          I agree, it’s almost certainly a bit of a red herring as far as the deeper issues go, but when you’re talking about programmers for a company whose headquarters are in the US where the voice is female, it’s also not fair to dismiss it out of hand just because it’s not the voice all users hear.

        2. Kris

          The other point that seems to be getting lost in a LOT of these articles is that Apple didn’t write Siri. It was an existing app that they bought and integrated into iOS. I’m sure they did some work to it beyond its original state, but still, they didn’t develop the app from the ground up. I’ve yet to see one of these “THIS IS PROOF APPLE IS SEXIST” stories actually mention that.

        3. Terri

          Just a note: This article isn’t exactly lambasting apple specifically, so I think it’s unfair to class it as “proof apple is sexist”. I’ll quote it again:

          That the tech company that’s the standard-bearer for progressive, innovative, user-friendly technology can’t bother to care about the concerns of half the human race speaks to a sexism that’s so interwoven into the fabric of our society that it’s nearly invisible.

          It’s characterizing this not as an apple problem, but a societal problem that results in an oversight that really any group of programmers might have made if they weren’t specifically guarding against such mistakes. It’s that framing of the problem that made this article sufficiently interesting to quote here.

        4. jennygadget

          Since the first thing that came to my mind when I heard the gender of UK’s Sirsi was the tradition of Master/Man-Servant relationships in (among other things) the literature and media there…not so much. That the entire world doesn’t think female = “person at my beck and call”, does not mean that the US doesn’t have a history of giving Siri type devices (real or imaginary) female voices because the US has this kind of association.

        5. jennygadget

          Also, regarding Apple not creating Siri – …they are the ones selling it (or, rather, it’s usage), yes?

          It’s not like they haven’t done this before – bought technologies and fit them into their products – so why does it matter who started making Siri, so long as Apple is the one delivering the product and selling it as a feature?

  3. Elizabeth G.

    What really ticks me off about this is that if it was services that were not associated with women this would be a big issue. The tech community would wall it a bug or a kink. There would be condemnation about how Siri wasn’t living up to the promise but since they are women’s services then it is seen as a simple over site “oops”.

    Has Apple Responded yet?

    1. jon

      Apple’s responded by calling it a “glitch”.

      What a coincidence. That’s exactly the same language Amazon used when they delisted books by LGBTQ, feminist, and disabled authors with #amazonfail.

    2. Terri

      That’s definitely a pattern we see elsewhere… but I’m not sure if it’s fair to say here. I’m sure Siri fails to search for other things very well, and those are probably being written off as bugs in exactly the same manner as this is. I’m not sure there’s much Siri *could* be failing to find that would actually cause more of an uproar, although maybe someone here can think of something that would cause a real stink?

      1. jennygadget

        It doesn’t fail to find places to hide dead bodies, (hypothetical) places to buy weed, and has suggestions for when you (assumed straight and male) are “horny.”

        Whatever else is going on here, there is a definite pattern to the kinds of things it can find or can’t find when it comes to sexuality and reproduction.

  4. Elizabeth G.

    Here is an interesting article. At one point the author says:

    Apple didn’t seem to realize this, or at least didn’t act on it effectively, so now it’s getting banged on because its nascent search engine can’t connect the word “abortion” to a medical center that doesn’t use that word in its description. That’s Search 101, fellas.

    Other than the pretty unfortunate use of the “fellas” term I just don’t buy this first, because planned parenthood often does outright say “abortion services” in their description, at least as often as CPCs say “abortion counseling” in their’s, and apparently siri could find those. So does siri only find businesses that put their services in their name?

    I would be interested to test phrases like “I have a cavity, where should I go?” and see if siri can send you to the dentist.

    And that fellas is logic 101.

    1. Terri

      Also, there was an absolutely *excellent* post debunking the “it’s hard to find abortion clinics” theory based on results from other search engines, but I apparently didn’t bookmark it, so if anyone else has the link please pipe up!

  5. Ben McKenzie

    I’d be the first to complain if I thought Apple had a pro-life agenda, but there’s no evidence that’s so. The inappropriate responses Siri gives are likely due to the content of the directories it searches – like Yelp in the US – and the fact that intelligent agent design is complicated, and in Siri’s case, unfinished: it’s still in Beta, we’re all a giant test at the moment. (Note that while you can use Siri on an iPhone 4S in any country where they’re available, you can only search for businesses and places in the US and when using US English.) It seems highly unlikely there’s any agenda on Apple’s part, though they could certainly respond faster and more definitively to the media beat-up than they have.

    There are quite a few good articles written about this, but the most in-depth is probably from Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand. Some key things from his investigation: Siri responds similarly to other phrases it doesn’t understand (e.g. “I need a tool store”); in some places it can understand and locate “abortion clinics”; and that the problem is due to both gaps in Siri’s comprehension and the way in which businesses choose to list themselves in the Yelp directory.

    No doubt Apple will take note that serious keywords will need serious responses; their first priority would have been the most common use scenarios, like finding businesses by name and listed category. But the kind of delicate interpretation needed to respond appropriately to the questions we’re talking about is more complicated, and will need more work to get right. I think they ought to put it at a high priority, though, now they know people might ask Siri this sort of thing.

    Siri in this case is a victim of its own success: it does seem like a person, and if a person had these “mysetrious” gaps in knowledge and suspect answers, we’d be right to think they were pro-life. But Siri isn’t a person, and while it’s very good, it’s a long way from perfect.

    (Oh, and for the record, Siri’s Australian English voice is female, but the British English voice is male.)

    1. Terri

      I think this post actually sums it up best: Siri Is Apple’s Broken Promise. In short, Siri is bad at lots of things, so many that it’s unsurprising that it’s possible to pick out some that add up to an agenda.

      This, incidentally, doesn’t *exactly* refute the unintentional sexism claim, though, as stuff like like this could have been fixed pre-beta if anyone on the teams involved had thought to try searching for birth control. But at least it makes it feel more like a glitch and less like a snub.

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