The amount of sexism on the internet is depressingly self-evident. Women in particular who speak their minds online are frequently attacked on the basis on their gender, and often in horrifyingly graphic ways. But what about the internet itself? There could be inherent characteristics in its very structure that could be considered sexist or gender biased.
It would seem so. To give you an idea, type ‘engineer’ or ‘managing director’ into a search engine and look at the images. You’ll find that the vast majority are of men. The stereotypes work both ways, of course. Type in ‘nurse’ and most of the images will be of women. Although this may simply reflect society as it stands, there is an argument to be made that, intentionally or otherwise, it also reinforces gender stereotyping. Given how influential the internet is on people’s perception of the world – a fact laid bare recently in both Brexit and the US Elections – isn’t there a responsibility among tech giants like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook to fight the kind of prejudices that too often see internet users inhabit echo chambers where their own biases are reflected back at them?
It’s a question fraught with moral issues. On the one hand, search engines are automated and simply display the most common searches. It’s also clear that attempts to censor these facts of internet life is equally dubious, not only because it amounts to a denial of the issue, but because it sets a scary precedent, potentially providing a gateway into all kinds of Orwellian thought control.
Nevertheless, the issue is not about to go away, and making people more socially aware of gender bias on the internet is the first step in trying to find a solution. The problem was highlighted brilliantly in a UN campaign in 2013 concerned with women’s rights. It showed women’s faces with their mouths covered by the Google search bar and various auto-complete options, such as ‘women need’ transforming into ‘knowing their place’. It was also effectively publicised up by TED.com editor Emily McManus who, when attempting an internet search to find an English student who taught herself calculus, was asked by Google, ‘Do you mean a student who taught himself calculus?’ McManus’s subsequent screenshot was retweeted thousands of times and became a worldwide news story.
Part of the issue stems from a lack of gender balance in the tech industry itself. Office for National statistics figures from 2014 reveal that in the UK there are 723,000 male compared to 124,000 female professionals in the IT industry. In 2015, according to the companies’ own figures, only 17% of Microsoft’s technical staff were women, while men made up 83% of Google’s engineering staff and 80% of Apple’s technical staff. It’s true that these industries have put various initiatives in place to try to redress this balance, like Google’s ‘Made with Code’ or Microsoft’s ‘Women in tech’, spearheaded by Melinda Gates, but there’s clearly still a long way to go.
Although women are unquestionably the most disadvantaged when it comes to gender bias on the internet, men don’t escape stereotyping either. For example, with women making inroads into high-powered, well-paid jobs there are consequently more men taking on domestic roles or becoming stay-at-home dads. Trying to find this reflected on the internet is just as hard as trying to find female engineers. The attitude is still very much that if a man isn’t the ‘breadwinner’ he’s not really a man – type ‘homemaker’ in and see what comes up. Likewise, even as men’s involvement in child-rearing is transforming, the internet still fails to accurately represent such a significant social shift.
So what’s to be done, besides simply switching off the predictive function in settings? It seems some new approaches are being experimented with, ones that strike a balance between using the predictive function – which is otherwise a useful tool – and maintaining an element of choice. For example, global Swedish tech company Semcon has come up with a browser extension called Re-Search. This doesn’t stop the predictive function acting in its usual fashion, but it does provide an alternative search result that aims to give men and women more equal space in the search results.
Says Project Manager, Anna Funke, “If engineers are portrayed as men in yellow helmets, how can women feel that the job might be of interest to them? Role models are important when young people are thinking about their career choices and the internet is the first place many people look for information.” Semcon are making the software available free of charge, and its also open source in the hope it will encourage individuals and companies to develop the product further and find their own ways to spur on greater gender equality across the internet.
It’s worth remembering though, that when the internet first appeared back in the 1990s, it was hailed as a great democratic technology. Despite the ways in which states, corporations or individuals attempt to manipulate it, it remains just that, reflecting what we are, even when that’s pretty unpalatable. Ultimately then, if we’re going to have an internet that better reflects equality, openness and decency, it’s down to all of us who use it.