Call a toll-free number. Ride in an elevator. Use a car’s GPS system. You’ll notice that all of these technologies have female voices. Why is that? Here’s a breakdown:
Female switchboard operators:
There’s a history of men treating working women like machines, and it dates back to the turn of the 20th century. Kenneth Lipartito, a history professor at the University of Florida who specializes in business and technological history, wrote about the first female switchboard operators in his article, “When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry.” According to Lipartito, the first switchboard operators were men, but were replaced by women beginning in the 1890’s. “Telephone managers believed that women possessed the qualities they sought. Respectable deportment, accuracy, attention to detail, good hearing, and good speech were commonly held to be female more than male traits…Women’s purportedly more patient nature— formed no doubt from their maternal instincts—was seen to be especially valuable” (Lipartito). By 1900, over 80% of operators were single, white women, many of them in their twenties. These women, called “hello girls” at AT&T, went through a rigorous training process in order to complete their repetitive tasks with perfect accuracy and speed. Katherine Schmitt, the Bell Telephone Company’s first female supervisor, remarked that “the operator must be a paragon of perfection, a kind of human machine.” This marks the beginning of when women’s disembodied voices over the telephone emerged. Just as the switchboard operators connected people’s telephone lines, today’s voice-automated messaging systems on toll-free numbers and cell phones perform similar tasks. Americans became accustomed to hearing women’s voices assist them over the phone, which is part of the reason why Siri – another disembodied voice over the phone – is female.
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Female elevator operators:
The voice in the elevator that announces the floor and if the elevator is going up or down is the machine replacement for human elevator operators. Though both men and women worked as elevator operators, Marshall Field’s department store was famous for its all-female elevator operator staff. They were all young, attractive, women whom Fields sent to “charm school,” to be poised for operating the store’s elevators (Brune).
Shirley Maclaine played perhaps the most iconic elevator operator on film as Fran Kubelik in The Apartment (1960). In the scene that introduces Ms. Kubelik, we see her greeting the businessmen as they enter the elevator, announce what floor they are on and that the elevator is going up. Notice the repetitive and robotic signals of her arms to indicate the elevator is continuing up. When Mr. Kirkeby sexually harasses her by smacking her bottom, she tells him to watch his hands or next time she’ll shut the doors onto them. Fran’s machine-like skill at operating the elevator, combined with her sassy response to Mr. Kirkeby, are demonstrative of the capabilities Siri can perform and the personality Siri is programmed to evoke.
When talking elevators were first introduced in the 1980’s, they didn’t have the technology to project the higher pitch of female voices, so the first elevators had computer-created male voices. In 1995, Otis Elevators began using voice-recording technology and made the permanent switch to female voices in elevators.
“I think it’s always much more soothing to hear a female voice than a male voice in a difficult situation,” said Hubert Hayes, executive director of the National Association of Vertical Transportation Professionals. (Associated Press)
According to a CNN article called “Why Computer Voices Are Mostly Female,” the use of female voices in navigation devices dates back to World War II, when women’s voices were employed in airplane cockpits because they stood out among the male pilots.