A genderless digital voice to challenge gender mainstreams

Signal of change / A genderless digital voice to challenge gender mainstreams

By Carolina Altenburger / 28 Mar 2019

Q is a genderless digital voice meant to be used for virtual assistants.

Virtue Nordic (part of Vice Media's global ad agency) in collaboration with Copenhagen Pride, Equal El, researchers, production and sound studios created the neutral voice out of 24 voices. To receive neither masculine nor feminine voice, they chose one that could be placed on a frequency between 145Hz and 175Hz. According to research, most people perceive voices within this range as gender-neutral. Four modifications of this voice were sampled to 4500 survey participants. After listening to it they placed the voices on a scale running from one (masculine) to five (feminine). The one that ultimately was chosen - Q -  50 percent perceived as neutral, 26 percent perceived it as being masculine and 24 percent as feminineIt is not yet implemented in any tech device, according to the group they are in conversations with several companies including the 'big four' player.

So what?

The collaboration aims to make tech more inclusive. Whilst most virtual assistants offer their users the possibility to choose either a male or a female voice, this is still a binary choice which doesn't recognise people who don't identify in this spectrum. According to linguists our brains are culturally programmed to see gender as either female or male. A gender-neutral voice could challenge this urge to classify people as either or and push our boundaries on social norms. But it's not only about increasing the visibility of a growing number of people who identify as non-binary in our society.

There is still a stereotypical use of female and male voices in the tech industry utilising attributes we associate with either of them for commercial reasons. Researchers have found female voices to be perceived as warm and welcoming while lower pitched voices are recognised as authoritarian and associated with men. This has several implications. Besides women's voices being favoured by men and women, they are used more often for assistance and information services. Men's voices, on the other hand, are mostly used for guidance purposes, such as instructions in public transportation where influencing people's behaviour in an authoritarian way is asked for. By taking up these gender cues from the social environment, tech companies are reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. Could genderless Q be one small step away from those traditional roles?

Are our binary thinking brains able to perceive Q as genderless even without knowing that is meant to be gender-neutral? Or, will our minds end up putting a female or male face to the voice?

Voice assistance in tech devices is meant to grow by 35 percent per year until 2023. Could a gender-neutral voice subconsciously influence the way our brains are wired when it comes to gender? In a society where a non-binary gender categorisation is not commonly recognised, could a genderless voice lead to thinking beyond entrenched gender norms? 


https://www.wired.com/story/the-genderless-digital-voice-the-world-needs-right-now/ https://qz.com/work/1577597/this-ai-voice-is-gender-neutral-unlike-siri-and-alexa/ http://www.genderlessvoice.com/

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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