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How Google Images can distort our view of certain professions


In the workplace there are, unfortunately, any number of biases and prejudices that distort our chances of success.  Whether it’s women trying to get into STEM related industries or even gay men trying to get into traditionally masculine industries, studies have highlighted the challenges faced.

A recent study shows how something as simple as a search of Google Images can reflect the diversity of nearly 50 different industries.

For instance, if you look for chief executives on the search engine, women are very heavily underrepresented, which can potentially distort the perceptions and worldviews of those doing the searching.

The paper set out to answer that core hypothesis: Does what appears when we search for particular careers in Google Images influence our perception about the number of men and women that actually work in each field?

The results suggest that the images returned to us do very much influence our perceptions of those careers.  When searchers were presented with manipulated results, it contributed around 7 percent of the subsequent opinion about gender diversity in each of the fields compared with their previous (pre-search) estimates.

“You need to know whether gender stereotyping in search image results actually shifts people’s perceptions before you can say whether this is a problem. And, in fact, it does — at least in the short term,” the authors say.

The study began by exploring the number of women that appeared in the top 100 search results for various professions with the official statistics on women working in those fields.

When Google Images isn’t representative

The results revealed a number of stark discrepancies.  For instance, whilst 27 percent of CEOs in America are women, just 11 percent of the image search results were of women.

Similar results emerged for writers, with over half of actual authors in America being women, compared to just 25 percent of those appearing in Google Images.

Other professions seemed to skew things the other way.  Telemarketers for instance were overly female in Google by around 15 percent.

Despite a number of professions seeming to be unfairly represented online, the results revealed that for around half of the professions studied, the results were fairly accurate (to within 5 percentage points).

“I was actually surprised at how good the image search results were, just in terms of numbers,” the authors say. “They might slightly underrepresent women and they might slightly exaggerate gender stereotypes, but it’s not going to be totally divorced from reality.”

The inequities don’t stop there

Interestingly however, the differences don’t end there.  The participants were also asked to rate the professionalism of the people in the search results.  The results revealed that people were rated as much more professional and competent when their gender matched that of the majority for that profession.

“A number of the top hits depicting women as construction workers are models in skimpy little costumes with a hard hat posing suggestively on a jackhammer. You get things that nobody would take as professional,” the authors explain.

The authors hope that their findings will prod the software engineers behind the search algorithms to look again at how they rank images in the search results to try and ensure they are more representative of reality.

“Our hope is that this will become a question that designers of search engines might actually ask,” they conclude. “They may come to a range of conclusions, but I would feel better if people are at least aware of the consequences and are making conscious choices around them.”

How accurate are the search results for your own profession?

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