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Why gender bias in the workplace continues to exist

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Here’s a possible reason why gender gaps in the workplace are still commonplace: the representation of women and men in Google images.

A new University of Washington (UW) study analysed how accurately gender representations in online image search results match reality.

In a few jobs — including those of the CEO — women were significantly under-represented in Google image search results.

And that, the report highlighted, has a possibility to change searchers’ views on women and reinforce gender stereotypes.

In fact, researchers from the UW and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County found that manipulated image search results could affect, on average, 7% of a study participant’s subsequent opinion about how many men and women work in a particular field.

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“You need to know whether gender stereotyping in search image results actually shifts people’s perceptions before you can say whether this is a problem. And, in fact, it does — at least in the short term,” said co-author Sean Munson, UW assistant professor of human centered design and engineering in a press release.

The study first compared the percentages of women who appeared in the top 100 Google image search results in July 2013 for different occupations — from bartender to chemist to welder — with 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics showing how many women actually worked in that field.

In some jobs, the discrepancies were pronounced.

For instance, in a Google image search for CEO, 11% of the people depicted were women, compared with 27% of U.S. CEOs who are women.

Likewise, 25% of people depicted in image search results for authors were women, compared with 56% of actual U.S. authors.

By contrast, 64% of the telemarketers depicted in image search results were female, while that occupation is evenly split between men and women.

Interestingly, when the researchers asked people to rate the professionalism of the people depicted in top image search results, other inequities emerged.

“Images that showed a person matching the majority gender for a profession tended to be ranked by study participants as more competent, professional and trustworthy. They were also more likely to choose them to illustrate that profession in a hypothetical business presentation,” the UW press release stated.

By contrast, the image search results depicting a person whose gender didn’t match an occupational stereotype were more likely to be rated as provocative or inappropriate.

“A number of the top hits depicting women as construction workers are models in skimpy little costumes with a hard hat posing suggestively on a jackhammer. You get things that nobody would take as professional,” said co-author Cynthia Matuszek.

Image: Shutterstock

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