As International Women’s Day approaches, I have been contemplating the sexist content displaying on the Google network, and I wanted to raise the debate of Google’s role in promoting sexist attitudes.
This post summarises a talk I gave as part of Boots.com International Women’s Day activities.
Sexist Content on Google
The Google network amplifies and highlights sexist search behaviour on the search network. For example, the Google Suggest function shows predictive text when searching, steering users towards the most commonly searched phrases.
“Search for a phrase like ‘women should’ using the world’s biggest search engine and Google will suggest you may be searching for ‘women should be slapped’ or ‘women should stay at home’. Type the words ‘women need to’ and Google suggests you may be looking for ‘women need to shut up’ or ‘women need to know their place’.”
Google Suggest is an automated service, and the predictive text reflects current search volumes, and also incorporate suggestions within the search results.
It may be automated, but is it appropriate for the world’s leading and most trusted brand to be amplifying this kind of sexist content?
It is not just the Google computer technology
It isn’t simply the automated Google searching that includes sexist content. Until recently Google’s famous daily graphic, known as the Google Doodle, was not representative of women’s role in society.
According to statistics released last year, only 17% of Google’s Doodles celebrated women’s achievement and success. Of the 445 Doodle’s analysed, only 77 of them represented women in any guise.
Google have responded rapidly to accusations of sexism in the Google Doodles, and are providing images with a more representative mix of races and genders.
Other forms of sexist content on Google
Google’s Image Search function provides users what Google ranks as the most appropriate images suited to any key word search. However, a search using Google Images results using the search phrase ‘women’ delivers a selection of lingerie models, Barbie dolls, and women in various states of undress.
Conversely, an Image Search ‘managing director’ in brings up pictures of 29 white men… and one white woman.
Google is even making sexist assumptions about its users. I have a strong interest in technology. Google’s personalisation of my search results led to Google assuming I was a 35 year old man. Though this assumption has now been replaced by my Google Plus information.
Surely the assumption that an interest in technology makes me a young man is an indicator of Google’s outdated view of women, and their interactions with computer technology.
Is Google Reflecting a Sexist Society?
Google is not, as a company, sexist, and I’m proud that Hallam is a Google Certified Partner.
Indeed, many of its practices, including its own recruitment, are very much geared toward equal opportunities. Google is actively supporting female entrepreneurs through its #40Forward programme, and in fact today’s Doodle represents Elizabeth Barratt Browning, a female Victorian poet. What Google is therefore doing is portraying a reflection of what we as a society are searching for.
My assertion is that Google simply reflects what is already happening because its search results are based on what we already search.
Mirror, mirror on the wall…
Perhaps it is best to use an analogy more familiar in fairy tales. Google acts as a mirror of today’s society – and unfortunately our reflection shows us the wicked witch.
What we’re seeing in the Google search results is a reflection of what we search for. To suggest that these search results are indicative of Google’s own opinions would be foolish. But to surmise that they are reflective of our society’s opinions is, I believe, a valid point.
I am absolutely opposed to censorship. I am a firm supporter of women such as Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, whose work for Go ON UK focuses on making the UK the world’s most digitally skilled nation. My fear is that the internet mirrors and image of a society we do not want to encourage – and that Google, in reflecting that image, amplifies flaws we’d rather remove.”
Does Google therefore have a duty of care to manage the way it reflects society? Is it amplifying a negative perception of women at a time when women should be celebrated?
The question of a duty of care is a difficult one to answer. Legally, Google is not required to censor inappropriate content, and of course I find the overall principle of censorship morally repugnant. But morally, we need to ensure our society cultivates an environment of equality. These questions will no doubt raise much debate in the coming days, as International Women’s Day focuses attention on the representation of women.