Sexism by search engine —When search engines finish our thoughts

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

UN Women’s ad series reveals widespread sexism
UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, has launched an advertising campaign showing portraits of women from various ethnic backgrounds, each with her mouth covered by  a white strip filled with words—but not words from the women’s own silenced voices. The words are results of Google’s autocomplete feature that showed up from actual searches on phrases such as “Women should” and “Women shouldn’t.”  The autocomplete suggestions for “Women cannot” brought up such sentence completions as “drive,”  “be bishops,” “be trusted,” and “speak in church.”  Of course, the actual sentence completions at a given time may vary by when and where the search takes place, but what has shown up consistently is a pattern of sexism, whether as stereotyping, failure to recognize women’s equality and rights, disrespect for women as human beings, or justification of overt discrimination.

(When I tried such a Google search just now on the words, “Women cannot,” the top five autocompletions were “be trusted,” “be pastors,” “have it all,” “teach men,” and “drive.” I then tried it on Bing, and here’s what came up: “be priests,” “serve as priests,” “be pastors,” “vote,” “preach,” “be trusted,” “have it all,” and “speak in church.” It’s interesting to see how the words, “Women cannot,” elicit so many religion-related responses.  Yet it’s actually not surprising in view of the way religious traditions and writings have portrayed women and the roles they are assigned.)  These findings, of course, don’t mean Google or Bing is the culprit in promoting sexism.  For search engines, it’s all a matter of algorithms. Search engines are simply basing the sentence completions on the prevalence of word-combination searches that people are actually using, and thus they reflect the societal and religious attitudes that prompt people to seek information on these topics.  People may do so for many reasons (including, presumably at least in some cases, to counter such negative messages).

Related:  Sociologist Lisa Wade, on Sociological Images, expands the idea of the UN Women’s ad campaign by showing close-ups of the ads, and then including under each one her own search findings. She also tried another search to see what Google’s autocomplete would  bring up when the word men was used with the same verbs. “Men should,” “Men cannot,” and so on.  Then, “as a bonus,” she did a search to see what autocomplete did with the word feminists.”  That exercise revealed a great deal of hate, even violence, directed toward feminists.  Take some time to look through them all, and then try doing your own search to see what comes up.  For further reading, see this article in The Guardian.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

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