Google knows our gender bias

You know how sometimes life feels like you just need to keep plugging away: force one foot in front of the other trusting somehow that at some point you will gain enough momentum to look up and take in the terrain all around you? And the goal is to get your task completed. Do what you need to do and in time you might begin to see how this mundane stuff fits together into something more meaningful or beautiful.

I was reminded of this sort of down in the trenches work of day-to-day living recently when I had my students watch the TED video of Malcolm Gladwell where he retells the David and Goliath story in light of emerging historical clues about David’s armor and weapon, about Acromegaly and battle. One of my students in response to this insight remarked about how surprising it is that as readers we have been surprised by David’s success with his sling shot when we probably should expect him to be accurate and deadly with his weapon of choice. David, after all, had practiced this craft day after day in his care-taking duties of watching and guarding his sheep. A successful shepherd would have had ample practice in warding off prey, animals or otherwise.

This everyday practice of being who we are, of exercising our values in real life moments on a regular basis struck me recently when I read about how a study of parental Google searches discovered the majority of searches are for boys who are intellectually gifted or girls who are not as pretty and/or petite as parents would like them to be. According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz there is a clear gender bias in Google term searches that cuts across political and cultural geography. In his research, Stephens-Davidowitz found parents are 2 ½ times more likely to ask “is my son gifted?” than “is my daughter gifted?” Too, parents are twice as likely to ask how to help their daughters (as opposed to their sons) lose weight or 1 ½ times more like to ask whether or not their daughter is beautiful.

What makes this research even more interesting is that there is no legitimate reason for assuming these differences to be true. Girls are not less likely than boys to be gifted. In fact, it may be that girls are more gifted than boys: at least in American schools, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, girls are 11 percent more likely than boys to be in gifted programs.

Likewise, there are no legitimate reasons to assume girls are more overweight than boys; research indicates the reverse more likely is true.

The data is clear: parents show a bias for thinking about their sons’ intellectual abilities and their daughters’ physical appearance. In light of this considerable discrepancy, Stephens-Davidowitz asks, “how would American girls’ lives be different if parents were half as concerned with their bodies and twice as intrigued by their minds?”

It’s a good question to be sure because it asks us for some truthful introspection of our individual values–far beyond just those of parents. This asks each of us what we really hold to when no one (except Google) is looking.