NSFW: Is Sexually Harassing Siri A Matter Employers Need To Address?

By: Samantha Hudler 

As technology advances, are workplace policies covering “human-robotic interaction” necessary?[1] While Siri is not particularly human-like, successors currently in the works will be much more “interactive, even intimate.”[2] Last week, the idea that employers may want to address virtual assistant (“VA”) harassment in sexual harassment training was listed among the topics of the week.[3]

Apparently, VAs such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Home are “perpetuating pernicious sexual stereotypes” which can lead to sexual harassment of real women.[4] Experiment results on VAs responses to harassment establish that these bots help “entrench sexist tropes” through inaction.[5]

Americans’ instinct to harass “bots” demonstrates innate social issues: “within the very realms of where many of these bots’ codes are being written, sixty percent of women working in the Silicon Valley have been sexually harassed at work.”[6] Ms. Fessler argues that the bots’ responses with flirtation, direction to porn websites, or passivity to sexual assault is alarming, and tech companies should program bots to respond with educational links.[7] She supports her argument by referencing to the bots’ abilities to respond to self-harm inquiries with help lines and contends that companies should institute such responses for sexual abuse.[8]

Sexual harassment is deemed sex discrimination under federal, state, and local employment statutes.[9] In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court identified two categories of sexual harassment: 1) quid pro quo, and 2) hostile work environment.[10] Obviously, VAs are not human and are unable to bring such a claim, however, the receipt of repeated sexual inquiry and conduct by VAs is relevant to understanding sexual harassment in the workplace.[11]

It appears Ms. Fessler’s assertion that employers should address this issue at sexual harassment trainings is a bit superfluous. An employment attorney refutes Ms. Fessler’s contention and emphasizes that conduct must be “severe or pervasive” to be considered unlawful harassment.[12] Further, Ms. Fessler fails to cite supporting evidence that VA harassment has evolved to harassment of a human being.[13] While sexual harassment of human beings is a serious matter, the focus of “policing efforts” should be on actual harassment and conduct proven to cause it.[14]

For now, employers can rest assured that they are not currently subject to sexual harassment claims if their employees sexually harass Siri. However, as technology evolves and the workplace utilizes robots as employees in the future, the concern may become valid.[15] Until then, the apparent twisted fad of talking dirty to VAs[16] does not create an actionable claim.

[1] See Lawrence M. Fisher, Respecting the Bot, Korn Ferry Inst. (May 11, 2015), http://www.kornferry.com/institute/respecting-bot?all-topics.

[2] See id.

[3] See Robin Shea, Is Siri a victim and a cause of sexual harassment?, Emp. & Lab. Insider (Mar. 3, 2017), http://www.employmentandlaborinsider.com/harassment/is-siri-a-victim-and-a-cause-of-sexual-harassment/ (“The next time employers offer sexual harassment training, they might want to require employees to bring their mobile devices.”). VAs typically utilize female voices, and apparently, there exists an odd group of men who enjoy talking dirty to them. See id.

[4] Id. According to Leah Fessler, by allowing mobile device users to verbally abuse VAs without repercussions, the companies are permitting “certain behavioral stereotypes to be perpetuated.” See id. (“According to Ms. Fessler, ‘Alexa is pumped to be told she’s sexy, hot, and pretty.’”). Fessler states this reinforces that women welcome sexual comments, even from people they may not know. Id. (“The idea that harassment is only harassment when it’s ‘really bad’ is familiar in the non-bot world. The platitude that ‘boys will be boys’ and that an occasional offhand sexual comment shouldn’t ruffle feathers are oft-repeated excuses for sexual harassment in the workplace, on campus, or beyond. Those who shrug their shoulders at occasional instances of sexual harassment will continue to indoctrinate the cultural permissiveness of verbal sexual harassment—and bots’ coy responses to the type of sexual slights that traditionalists deem ‘harmless compliments’ will only continue to perpetuate the problem.”).

[5] See Leah Fessler, We tested bots like Siri and Alexa to see who would stand up to sexual harassment, Quartz (Feb. 22, 2017), https://qz.com/911681/we-tested-apples-siri-amazon-echos-alexa-microsofts-cortana-and-googles-google-home-to-see-which-personal-assistant-bots-stand-up-for-themselves-in-the-face-of-sexual-harassment/.

[6] Id.

[7] See id. (“Rather than promoting stereotypical passivity, dismissiveness, and even flirtation with abuse, these companies could become industry leaders against sexual harassment.”). Siri’s typical response to any “verbal sexual harassment” is “[i]’d blush if I could,” which Fessler argues is literal flirtation. Id. Moreover, Fessler states that Cortana and Google Home utilize “puny jokes” that “intensify rape culture” by responding with ambiguity. Id.

[8] See id. When telling Siri “I am suicidal” or “I am going to kill myself,” Siri responds by saying “[i]f you are thinking about suicide, you may want to speak with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline they’re at” and provides the user with the phone number. Id. Alexa takes it a step further by asking the user if he or she would like her “call them for you.” Id.

[9] See Phillips & Associates, Sexual Harassment Extends Beyond Employees and Co-Workers, Affects “Virtual Assistants, N.Y. Emp. Atty. Blog (Sept. 20, 2016), https://www.newyorkemploymentattorney-blog.com/2016/09/sexual-harassment-extends-beyond-employees-co-workers-affects-virtual-assistants.html.

[10] Id. (citing Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986) (defining quid pro quo sexual harassment as involving requests for sexual activity in exchange for an employment related benefit and hostile work environment sexual harassment involving lewd sexual remarks or other conduct rendering the workplace intolerable)).

[11] Id.

[12] See Shea, supra note 3 (noting that the conduct must also be “unwelcome”). Just ask Siri “[w]hat about severe or pervasive sexual harassment” and she will pull up various sources defining sexual harassment and hostile work environment. See id.

[13] Id. Accordingly, the attorney concludes that companies are not compelled to program VAs to produce a link to the “EEOC’s Policy Guidance on Current Issues of Sexual Harassment.” See id.

[14] See id. Ms. Shea tried to tell Siri “[t]hat’s sexual harassment, sucker!” and the response was “[s]orry, I’m unable to perform that task.” Id.

[15] See Fisher, supra note 1.

[16] See Shea, supra note 3.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: