The United Nations is continuing its admirable and proper work of highlighting discrimination against women around the world; but, is using Google’s autocomplete feature the best way to do it?
UN Women, a UN entity formed in July 2010 that focuses on gender equality and women’s rights, revealed a new ad campaign this week that “uses genuine Google searches to reveal the widespread prevalence of sexism and discrimination against women.”
The ads, presumably designed for print media, show Google autocomplete searches that begin with phrases like “women shouldn’t,” “women need to” and “women cannot.” Each ad places some of the autocomplete phrases over a woman’s mouth. (Google’s autocomplete suggestions typically show 10 results, but each UN ad shows four.)
UN Women says it got the autocomplete suggestions from Google searches back on March 9, 2013. Here are two of the ads:
But are Google autocomplete suggestions actually a reflection of what’s undeniably a serious problem?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
As search nerds, you and I know that autocomplete is based on actual searches that people are doing, not on the content of Web pages (as some coverage of the ads has said). What we don’t know — and what no one can know — is why are these suggestions coming up?
In some cases, it’s possible that the search phrase isn’t being typed by someone with a discriminatory attitude toward women, but by students or other researchers that want to learn which religions, for example, don’t allow women to be bishops. Or they might be researching which countries still believe that women shouldn’t vote, or used to have laws/rules that kept women from voting. In other words, ask yourself: Do all of the things I search for reflect my own beliefs, or are they sometimes phrases that I don’t believe or support, but am trying to learn about for some reason?
I’m making a very semantic argument here, and the general public — to whom these ads are targeted — probably doesn’t care why these are some of the popular searches on Google — they just care that they are, and realize that they shouldn’t be. That, ultimately, is what makes them effective.
For what it’s worth, you can flip the table and do similar searches using “men” instead of “women” — like this one for “men cannot….”
Men cannot be feminists? Men can’t multitask? Men cannot be trusted? Men cannot live without women? Certainly not as troubling as the “women” searches, but not a shining picture of what society thinks of men, either.