George Wiman, in searching for news about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords’ and others, typed into Google the phrase “congresswoman assassinated.” Google, it turns out, isn’t sure that “congresswoman” is a word. I tried it again at midnight last night with the same result.
UPDATE: Readers discovered that Google doesn’t say “Did you mean congressman?” if you type only “congresswoman.” The algorithm is based on language that already exists on the net and apparently “congresswoman assassinated” is not a phrase we find out there. It’s so interesting how neutral tools — like algorithms — can nevertheless reproduce existing biases. Because there have been so few congresswomen (too bad), and so few targeted with violence (thank goodness), typing in “congresswoman assassinated” makes it seem as if women are strangers to congress. To sum, I’m not saying that this is some evil plan or oversight by Google, it’s an interaction between our real, unequal social world and a neutral algorithm.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.