Google’s sexist spellchecker

One Monday evening in May, when Chanel and I were working our evening shift at the Writing Center, Chanel found, via Feministing, this reference to Google’s spell checker being a tad bit sexist (apparently!):

When you search “she invented” on Google, it asks you, “Did you mean ‘he invented?’”

Then, as Chanel put it,

Laura and I searched some other phrases like, “she imagined,” “she created,” “she created the world,” “she guides,” and “she leads” and got “Did you mean ‘he did this?’” for all of them. Wow.

This spell checker works by checking the most common spelling of a word, and if there are more results for another word it will suggest you change the spelling to make your results more “relevant.” Wow. I doubt that Google is intentionally being sexist, but they could stop that from happening, and they should, because these results perpetuate, through language, like Jessica Valenti said, the kind of sexist ideology that becomes “normal” in our culture.

And, wow is right.  We both typed in a string of strong verbs with the pronoun “She,” and google rejected most of them, suggesting instead “Did you mean He…?”

Anyway, here are the notes Chanel took down that night:

Type these words into Google preceded by “she” (like “she invented”) and google will ask you, “Did you mean ‘he?’”

races
reasons
directs
creates
succeeds
founded
led
imagined
graduated
supports
invented
communicates
admonished
headed
farms
owns
claims
shot
argues
joins
consults
renews
proposes
approves
discusses
purchased
converts
expects
deals
inherits
abuses
seized
reigns
confides
confesses
rents
searches
coaches
trains
scores

Google does not offer a correction for these words:

failed
follows
weeped
yelled
yells
reports

By the way, it’s okay with “he gave birth,” and “he has breasts”

Moreover, we couldn’t find any entires that provoked the opposite response: even if we typed in “he nurtures” or “he gives birth” — or any number of other tries — we couldn’t come up with any that gave the suggestion “DID YOU MEAN: she nurtures?” I think that’s because men are talked/written about so much more than women (still) that there’s really no verb that hasn’t been connected to men in more quantity than to women.

Oh, and if we put in something like “she follows,” the spell-checker was fine with that and suggested no alternatives. The only alternatives it gave were when we put a strong verb (something to do with action or economic power or leadership) with the pronoun “she.” Then it was very forthcoming with “DID YOU MEAN: he…?”

Yikes. It’s a reflection of the words we all swim in every day unconsciously. I agree: google should code into their spell checker not to make any spell suggestions about pronouns.

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