One Google Search Perfectly Exposes the Internet's Sexism Problem

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

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Smriti Sinha

Smriti is a multimedia journalist trained at the Columbia School of Journalism. Before moving to New York, she was a sports reporter at The Indian Express in New Delhi. She continues to cover issues in sports, women's and LGBT rights.

MORE FROM

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman was catcalled on stage and it didn't go well

Hall of fame hockey player Marcel Dionne yelled "Look at those legs!" while onstage with Raisman at the 2017 NHL Awards.

How the Senate's draft health care plan could affect reproductive services

It is very close to the House's version of the bill, and would block federal funding for Planned Parenthood for a year.

Jury in Bill Cosby case voted 10-2 in favor of conviction, according to juror report

2 jurors prevented the unanimous vote prosecutors needed to convict Bill Cosby of criminal charges, according to an account given to ABC News.

Florida higher-ed official says "women's genetics" cause the wage gap, apologizes

Ed Morton, a Florida university system board member, suggested women's genetics could be preventing them from negotiating higher pay.

Australian Sen. Larissa Waters gives speech to Parliament while breastfeeding like it's NBD

When you have to address the resurgence of black lung within the coal mining industry, but your daughter is also hungry...

Girl Scouts to offer badges in cybersecurity, hacking

Because girls need cyber skills, too.

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman was catcalled on stage and it didn't go well

Hall of fame hockey player Marcel Dionne yelled "Look at those legs!" while onstage with Raisman at the 2017 NHL Awards.

How the Senate's draft health care plan could affect reproductive services

It is very close to the House's version of the bill, and would block federal funding for Planned Parenthood for a year.

Jury in Bill Cosby case voted 10-2 in favor of conviction, according to juror report

2 jurors prevented the unanimous vote prosecutors needed to convict Bill Cosby of criminal charges, according to an account given to ABC News.

Florida higher-ed official says "women's genetics" cause the wage gap, apologizes

Ed Morton, a Florida university system board member, suggested women's genetics could be preventing them from negotiating higher pay.

Australian Sen. Larissa Waters gives speech to Parliament while breastfeeding like it's NBD

When you have to address the resurgence of black lung within the coal mining industry, but your daughter is also hungry...

Girl Scouts to offer badges in cybersecurity, hacking

Because girls need cyber skills, too.