Here are two quick facts to illustrate how we view women in leadership: 1) when you search CEO in Google images, you will not find one woman until you are ten rows down the page and 2) when you eventually do find a woman, she is a Barbie doll.
More specifically, she is an illustration of a Barbie doll attached to a parody article on the Onion from ten years ago. The article is called “CEO Barbie Criticized for Promoting Unrealistic Career Images” and it makes light of the lack of women in leadership in business. Sadly, the image’s place in Google’s search algorithm shows that not a whole lot has changed in the ten years since the article was published.
Google image search results – obviously – do not provide a comprehensive snapshot of any profession. But the visual representation of leadership being so dominated by men is symbolic of a worryingly similar reality. It is symbolic in the same way as a recent revelation that there are more CEOs name Peter in Australia than there are women (Or John in the US).
Worse still is the fact that Google’s search algorithm presents different image categories when you search “male CEO” and when you search “female CEO”. For men, categories include “chief executive officer” and “office”. For women, they include “outfit” and “attire”.
Combined, these observations reflect a rather uncomfortable picture of how we view women at work.
Google’s representation of female CEOs is actually lower than it is in reality. Women make up only 11% of the CEO faces that show up in Google images, but in reality women make up 27% of CEOs.
Researchers at the University of Washington have found that this gender representation problem is shared among most professions. Women are disproportionately underrepresented when you search for “doctor” or “construction worker” also. In fact, for some professions, like construction, the women who do appear in the image search are hyper sexualised.
The researchers found these inflations of professional gender stereotypes go both ways – in lines of work that are viewed as traditionally female, like answering phones, women make up 64% of image search results but only 50% of the profession.
The study’s co-author, Cynthia Matuszek, says these observations are not just symbolic – they actually impact our attitudes to gender and work.
“It’s part of a cycle: How people perceive things affects the search results, which affect how people perceive things,” she said.
In fact, the study finds that “manipulated image search results could determine, on average, 7 per cent of a study participant’s subsequent opinion about how many men and women work in a particular field.”
Another co-author of the study, Sean Munson, said he hopes it will make companies like Google think more critically about how these algorithms are designed and how they impact our gender biases.
“Our hope is that this will become a question that designers of search engines might actually ask.”
“I would feel better if people are at least aware of the consequences and are making conscious choices around them.”
So some may say the fact that Barbie beats any and all real, flesh-and-blood women in the Google image CEO competition is merely an unfortunate mistake of an algorithm. But in reality, by influencing the way we picture – literally – women at work, it is reflecting and reinforcing our unconscious gender biases all at the same time. And the result is the same: barbie CEO remains an unrealistic career image.