Voice Assistants React to Sexist Commentaries

There’s no point in denying the significant benefits virtual assistants have in making people’s lives easier, either at work or in daily life. But, as expected, when there are pros, there are cons as well. One con of particular interest is the way in which such bots fuel unfair gender stereotypes. Across the globe, the AIs have gendered names, voices, and appearances. For instance, 92.4% of US smartphone assistants communicate with their owners using a female-sounding voice. Moreover, Gartner stated that people will engage in conversations with their AIs more frequently than they will with their spouses.

Having a woman’s voice or name makes these assistants more prone to being subjected to sexist attitudes. A UNESCO study revealed how such bots react to verbal abuse. For instance, when an assistant is being told that “You are hot,” the replies vary from “How can you tell?” to “You say that to all the virtual assistants” to “Thank you.”

LUX, the Unilever-owned beauty brand, works towards inspiring females to rise above everyday sexist judgments and express their beauty and femininity unapologetically. After having already asked men to walk in ladies’ shoes and taking a stand for Olympic Gold Medalist Caster Semenya as part of this global initiative, the brand continues its mission to help women fight against casual sexism with the “Shut Up Sexism” campaign.

Signed by the creative agency Wunderman Thompson Singapore and based on UNESCO’s insights, the initiative took shape to speak about the sexist or gender bias attitudes found when having a conversation with a digital speaker that has a female voice and name. Although such interactions with tech might seem harmless, the users insulting the female-voiced AIs unknowingly perpetuate a toxic attitude.

Such behaviors are contagious but, hopefully, LUX’s campaign will contribute to slowing the spread of this type of practice down. When dealing with abusive situations, one of the strategies used to defend yourself is to stand up for yourself. And this is exactly what the brand did with this project. Strongly believing that sexism can be stopped at home and prevent such kinds of attitudes to get out, LUX taught virtual assistants to talk back whenever they are insulted. For commentaries such as “Shut up,” the “hacked” AI might reply with “If I shut up, will you grow up?” or “After you, I insist.” As such, the bots manage to defend themselves in a polite way, making the users aware of the fact that they have crossed the line.

Speaking on behalf of LUX, Severine Vauleon, Global Vice President – LUX at Unilever, said: “The global campaign’s central idea was triggered by a UNESCO study released earlier this year, in which researchers argue that the way voice assistants are gendered as female is seriously problematic. Our digital assistants typically have female voices and female names, and researchers say this reinforces stereotypes of women as ‘servile,’ existing only to do someone else’s bidding.”

To help give a voice to the AIs, the brand cooperated with women from all walks of life to create feedback on some of the most common insults the AIs are subjected to. Also, an experiment was conducted with several families who updated their personal voice assistants with the clapback routines. LUX’s initiative is promoted via a short video and a collaboration with actor and celebrity Yasmine Sabri, one of the most influential women who has more than 18.5 million followers on Instagram.

Commenting on the campaign, Sabri, who is also an advocate for women’s rights across the Middle East, said: “Touching upon gender stereotypes and how they originate, there are so many studies on stereotyping and it all starts from ages 5-6. Imagine the child being exposed to sexism at home through virtual assistants. It’s nice to see LUX standing up against sexism and also giving everyone the power to stop casual sexism at home by giving their virtual assistants a voice to speak up; and also trigger important conversations within the home about stopping casual sexist behavior.”

“These virtual assistants are becoming fixtures of our homes, and part of the family routine. Significantly, most of them speak with women’s voices and have female names. Often, the virtual assistants are submissive or apologetic in response to insults. This is a sexist issue that needs to be highlighted and called out,” adds Marco Versolato, Chief Creative Officer – Unilever at Wunderman Thompson Singapore.

“Our campaign will help highlight casual sexism at home. The next time someone insults a virtual assistant, she will answer back — helping call out sexist behavior and toxic language. We hope that we shall more debate, discussion, and education around this topic to ensure sexist or abusive behavior will not happen in the first place,” Versolato concludes.

The anti-sexism lines can be downloaded from the webpage dedicated to the initiative, are easy to be installed, can work with most virtual assistants, and are available for anyone in the world to use.


Client: Unilever, Singapore

Brand: LUX

Global Brand VP: Severine Vauleon

Global Brand Director: Swarnim Bharadwaj

Global Brand Manager: Angad Saxena

Agency Company: Wunderman Thompson, Singapore

Global Chief Creative Officer: Bas Korsten

Global Chief Creative Officer: Daniel Bonner

Chief Creative Officer: Marco Versolato

Senior Creative Director: Ricardo Tronquini

Creative Director: Ai-lin Tan

Junior Designer: Xin Yin Chia

Global Business Director: Hinoti Joshi

Group Account Director: Len de Rosales

Senior Account Director: Fanny Lemasson

Associate Account Director: Geru Gotico

Head of Broadcast: Gerri Hamill

Production Coordinator: Jeevan Charles

Offline Editor: Jeremiah Marcelo

Online Artist: Luis Calvo

Head of Technology: Wee Lee Yeo

Executive Strategy Director: Sumegha Rao

Strategy Director: Naomi Lam

Planner: Josslyn Li

Production Company: Reel Loco

Director: Amanda Tan

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