Last week I was preparing a talk about instructional technology in the modern university and I wanted to illustrate how IT can make a large lecture hall feel like a small seminar. I wanted to create an avatar of myself in my role of professor. It was late at night and I wasn’t being very creative.
So I googled “professor”.
A lot of white middle aged men, one black man with a beard, and one white woman among the first 13 images in my search. Admittedly, 3 of the images are cartoons, but they were also cartoons of older white men with mustaches (double-down on the masculinity!).
And then I googled “teacher”.
Young women, of various ethnic origins, and one young, definitely not white, man. There is one cartoon teacher – and she is a young red head.
What’s wrong with this? Everything. Still think we live in a gender blind world? Wake up.
It’s no news that search engines are not neutral – I even teach a whole class so students understand that nothing is neutral in how information and knowledge is organized, online or elsewhere. I just didn’t expect its sexism to jump out at me so explicitly, so unambiguously, so unabashedly. The search engine is trapped in an ideology it is not even aware of.
The search engine is a reflection of a bias that is deeply entrenched in society – a bias that we see play out on campuses, in corporations, and oh so painfully this year, in US politics.