Sometimes all it takes is a quick Google search to remember just how entrenched institutional sexism is today.
Such was the case on Thursday, after one innocuous search by TED editor Emily McManus proved illuminating. McManus had tried to search for the phrase, "an english major who taught herself calculus." But McManus' search engine had different ideas. Google, which includes an autocomplete function that provides alternative options for better search results, suggested: "Did you mean an english major who taught himself calculus."
Quite understandably, McManus was rather offended by the suggestion, which seemed to imply that Google believed it's more common for a male English major to learn calculus than a female one. When McManus posted a screenshot of the search on Twitter, the image quickly became something of a rallying cry for people across the social media network who had experienced sexism in STEM. Many of them flagged the result to Google, asking them to remove the bias.
Some postulated that it might not be the Google algorithm that's sexist — it's the search results, pointing to a more general sexism. Others worried that the whole thing was being overblown.
But this last argument wasn't necessarily true, at least not according to some anecdotal experimentation. When I searched for the same phrase, Google still offered the "himself' suggestion, but meanwhile the "herself" search had 105,000 results whereas "himself" had only 47,100.
Image Credit: Google
Another theory hinged on the fact that for some users, "herself" was appearing as a spelling error.
This isn't the first time Google has been criticized for sexism in its search results and its autocomplete feature. Last year, the UN launched an ad campaign hinging around the depressing fact that searches for the phrase "women" or "women should" brought up horribly misogynist autocompletes, including women should be slaves, women need to be put in their place, women should not have rights, women should be seen and not heard, women should not work, women need to be controlled and girls should not be educated.
Image Credit: AdWeek
Users from different countries get different results of course, but that ad campaign highlighted the fact that so many people around the world share and search for anti-women sentiments Google has come to expect them. While Google has since then removed many of these searches from showing up as a prompt, McManus' result yesterday shows that a lot still needs to be done to make sure the Internet is not perpetuating and fueling sexist thoughts.
As further proof, just look at some of the autocomplete searches for the simple phrase "feminists are:"
Image Credit: Google