Voice-activated sexism: exploring consequences of gendered technology  

Man using virtual assistance

By Corey Allen, senior manager, research communications 

New research from two PhD candidates at York University examines the trend of smart speaker unboxing videos on YouTube, arguing that women who create content about devices like Siri or Alexa are perceived as a kind of domestic technology themselves.    

“Voice-activated personal assistants (VAPAs) use women’s voices as a default setting, and this gendered technology significantly influences the treatment of women tech experts by male audiences online,” says Stephen J. Neville, who conducted the work alongside Alex Borkowski, both of whom are in the Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture at York and Toronto Metropolitan University. 

Stephen J. Neville
Stephen J. Neville
Alex Borkowski
Alex Borkowski

Unboxing is a popular video genre on YouTube and features people unwrapping and reviewing the latest high-tech gadget or product, like smart speakers. These videos often also offer a walk-through or demonstration of such a device.

“Today’s consumers learn about new tech products online before buying them, and unboxing videos are seen as providing a trusted third-party review,” says Borkowski. “We were curious to learn more about the resonance between VAPAs and women tech experts.”   

Neville and Borkowski watched over 200 of the most popular smart speaker unboxing videos on YouTube, the majority of which featured men, studying their contents, structure and aesthetics. Videos of women doing the unboxing made up only 10.9 per cent of their initial sample and garnered far fewer views.  

Analyzing over 4,000 comments on videos made by women revealed a troubling but rather unsurprising finding: the women’s intelligence was often insulted, or they were sexually objectified.  

The pair of researchers argue some of these comments treat the women as if they are broken machines – a concept developed in previous media studies research – and are issued commands like a smart speaker to stop talking (or shut up), go mute or turn off.  

“Sexism and misogyny are pervasive online and offline, and it extends to YouTube, which creates a challenging environment for female content creators,” says Borkowski. “Our research shows the domestication of smart speakers has had a spillover effect in the media consumption of these unboxing videos and women tech experts.”  

A substantial portion of the pair’s research focused on analyzing each woman YouTubers’ presentation or performance style, and the ways in which they engaged with the product.   

Based on this analysis, Neville and Borkowski observed the female content creators showed technical prowess and a solid understanding of smart speakers overall, but one aspect of their performances contradicted this display of expertise.   

In some of the unboxing videos, when the VAPA is turned on, the women’s reactions were over the top, with some acting overwhelmingly shocked or audibly gasping.   

The pair see this exaggerated behaviour as indicative of the way women are forced to navigate society at large, being expected to conform to traditional femininity.  

“Our findings suggest that some of these women can at times act ditzy to undercut their own authority and expertise with new technology,” says Neville. “This behaviour functions almost like a pre-emptive defence to the negative reaction they anticipate receiving from the audience.”  

According to Borkowski, the idea of a technologically savvy woman is threatening to some, so these women have learned to adapt their behaviour in an attempt to minimize the level of vitriol or hate they receive online.  

“It’s a burden male tech experts never contend with,” she says.  

Despite these negative conditions facing women online, there are grounds for optimism. Neville and Borkowski see potential for the concept of women as broken machines to be co-opted to promote equity and social justice. 

“Albeit broken, women tech experts viewed as machines provides them with a platform and channel to shape the way their audiences see and use technology,” says Neville. “They can also block trolls and disable comments as a way to resist online misogyny.”  

“The popularity of these unboxing videos provides an opportunity for female content creators to discuss bigger issues with technology beyond the functionality or practicality of one product, including concerns about privacy, surveillance and control,” says Borkowski.  

The research, “Broken domestication: The resonant politics of voice in gendered technology,” was published as a book chapter earlier this year in the Routledge Handbook on Media and Technology Domestication.