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NEWS & IDEAS

How Search Engines Reveal Worldwide Sexism

How Search Engines Reveal Worldwide Sexism

This morning Emily McManus, the editor of TED.com, tweeted a photo of a Google search. McManus had been searching for an English major who taught herself calculus (impressive). Google, as it sometimes does in its infinite wisdom, tried to correct her: "Did you mean 'English major who taught himself calculus'?" The search engine asked. McManus took a screenshot and responded. No, she did not mean to search for a male autodidact.

Some people who responded to McManus' tweet pointed out that Google's algorithm suggests corrections that are more regularly searched (and so will reveal more results). But while the female search reveals more than 1.9 million results, the male version returns only 47,000.

Last year, a campaign for UN Women showed how Google's autocorrect reflects worldwide sexism. Headshots of international women filled each ad, while a Google search bar covered their mouths. "Women shouldn't...have rights, vote, work, box," the results read. In both this case and McManus' example, it's not necessarily Google that's sexist, it's our collective global attitudes as we use the search engine. It makes us wonder: Who the hell is searching for "Women shouldn't have rights?" How could that be the first suggested autocorrect?

As a company, Google isn't exactly a model of equality. Only 30 percent of Google's U.S. employees are female, while only 17 percent of its tech staff are women. Its global leadership staff remains 79 percent male. But the tech giant is working to get more women involved in STEM with its recent launch of Made with Code, an initiative that teaches girls computer engineering. Google has also collaborated with Girls Who Code, MAKER Reshma Saujani's nonprofit that works to close the gender gap in technology and engineering. As people expose the sexism that's entrenched online and in tech, we hope Google will continue to be a leader in changing these ratios, and as companies increasingly take the initiative to empower women, the search results Google shows will start to change as well.

Tags: STEM, Google