or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Women in (and out of) Uniform

   February 20th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Google search suggestion for Sgt. Michelle Manhart A patron came into the library last week, looking for news stories about a woman in the Air Force who got into trouble for posing for Playboy. She remembered the woman's name, Sgt. Michelle Manhart, and asked if I could check a news website to get more information.

I went out to Google News and typed in "Sgt. Michelle Manhart." As expected, a few news stories did show.

But, I was surprised to see Google's "Did you mean" feature asking if I meant to search for "Sgt. Michael Manhart." I almost ignored it, thinking it was suggesting an alternate spelling of the female sergeant's name, but then noticed it was instead substituting the male Michael for the female Michelle.

Google News screen capture, 2/15/07

Odd, I thought. I clicked on the link, wondering if Google's algorithm would do the same thing (in reverse) if I searched for "Sgt. Michael Manhart" - ask if I meant Sgt. Michelle Manhart.

But surprisingly, it didn't. It just showed search matches for Michael (which actually were all news stories about Michelle).

Google News screen capture, 2/15/07

So then I wondered if it was the "Sgt." part of the search that was confusing it. Could Google's search algorithm really be sexist? Would it see the "Sgt." part and "think" that only men are Sergeants?

So I tried a search for just "Michelle Manhart," expecting Google to offer a "Did you mean" for "Michael Manhart". But it didn't, and just showed the matching news stories.

Google News screen capture, 2/15/07

I'm sure this isn't intentional sexism on Google's part, as this "Did you mean" algorithm is just supposed to reflect prevalent search patterns. But how ingrained must a concept be for software like this to pick up on it - and what does that say about how far our society has actually progressed?

google, google news, michell manhart, search, search algorithm, sexism

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