These Ladies Took The Gender Equality Debate To Google And Won!
Why language and gender equality go hand-in-hand
When I say ‘pop’ what words spring to mind? Perhaps ‘music’, ‘art’, ‘corn’ or maybe ‘star’?
Linguist’s refer to this word association as ‘collocation’: the habitual juxtaposition of a particular word with another word or words with a frequency greater than chance.
While some words conjure up innocent associations like ‘fast’ (food), ‘heavy’ (rain), I recently discovered that other associations reveal inherent gender bias in our society. So, what’s Google got to do with all this?
Our shocking discovery – how words can perpetuate gender stereotypes
I started my career in the advertising industry and, as an advertiser, words are a big part of my job.
I worked as a strategist and my colleague Kiah Nicholas was a copywriter. We worked late nights and long hours and regularly relied on Google definitions to do the heavy-lifting.
Over time, we noticed a pattern. Many of the examples used by Google, alongside the definition, weren’t exactly female-friendly.
Take these examples, for example:
- Rabid was “As, a rabid feminist.”
- Manipulative was “As a conniving and manipulative woman.”
- Nagging was “A nagging wife.”
- Shrill was “The shrill sound of her voice.”
- Ugly was “She thought shewas ugly and fat.”
- Housework was “She still does all the housework.”
- Conniving was “A heartless and conniving woman.”
- Chore was “Her illness made even daily chores like shopping difficult.”
- Retiring was “A retiring, acquiescent woman.”
- Flighty was “Her mother was a flighty southern belle.”
- Promiscuous was “She’s a wild, promiscuous, good-time girl.”
- Unsure was “She was feeling nervous and unsure of herself.”
- Silence was “She was silenced by the inspectors look.”
- Grating was “Her high grating voice.”
- Dumb was “She stood dumb while he poured out a stream of abuse.”
We delved deeper and discovered that Google draws primarily from the Oxford American Dictionary for its content.
How could something as fundamental as the dictionary – the official establishment of our language – be perpetuating outdated societal attitudes towards women, and why was Google following suit?
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” – how language enforces gender stereotypes
As we recently wrote here, “in a world where violence against women, unequal access to education and the gender pay gap are still global issues, it’s easy to think that the way women talk about themselves and are talked about just isn’t a priority problem. But this view underestimates the power of language to fundamentally shape society. Language is the framework we use to express ourselves, influencing and reflecting cultural attitudes. It is also a time capsule, containing an imprint of how these attitudes have changed over time.”
How women are perceived starts with how women are defined.
Whilst in many countries, there have been great gains made in relation to women’s participation in the workplace, cultural norms still persist which lead to unconscious bias, particularly in the office. And the use of particular gender bias words, perpetuates unconscious gender bias.
This study suggests that “Gender distinctions in language are strongly correlated with female labour-force participation and the use of gender political quotas.”
The upshot? Words are important. How we describe ourselves and how we are described, is instrumental in achieving diversity.
Listen up, Google!
With Google returning roughly 22 million search results per year, from the 18 definitions listed above, we saw an opportunity to roll-up our sleeves and bring our gender equality A-game.
We did what any women in advertising would do – we launched a campaign: #RedefineWomen.
Our #RedefineWomen campaign went viral: gender equality clearly sells
With no budget and no influencers to bolster our reach, we set ourselves an ambitious goal: to make a significant contribution to the gender parity conversation and lead real change.
We created 18 Instagram tiles depicting real-life examples of the offending sentences and published them in quick succession across social media.
The next morning, we woke up to discover our story splashed across the pages of Mashable, Huffington Post and UN Women. We gained international attention from the likes of Mic.com, Zooey Deschanel, Times of India and more!
I was dumbfounded that the rest of the world saw the value in our message and were willing to support it. It felt truly liberating and exciting to watch our campaign spread like wildfire across the Internet. Secretly, I was hoping that Emma Watson and I would become best friends, overnight.
Did the #RedefineWomen campaign work?
Emma Watson never called, but our campaign was a success!
We rallied the public and, within months, Google had updated 15 of its definitions with gender neutral examples. Win.
Oh man, they’re just words! What has this got to do with gender bias?
It’s easy to discount language as harmless. But, don’t be fooled: our choice of words mimics our reality and the perceptions and social mores of the world we live in.
So going forward, I’ve decided to be conscious of my own vernacular. I’ve stopped using words like ‘bitchy’ and ‘guys.’ I am more aware of the words I use, particularly the negative throw-away comments. Identifying them and then attempting to eliminate basic gender biased words from your vocabulary is tough! Want to try it out?
Here are a few gender specific pearlers to start with:
- ‘Hey guys’
- ‘All men are created equal’
- ‘Oh man’
But, the biggest lesson I learned from the success of the #RedefineWomen campaign is that you don’t need to be a big brand, or a celebrity to affect positive change. You already have the power. So, why not use it?
Do you think gendered language affects perceptions? Head over to the Iris Lillian Squad, sign up and continue the conversation with me! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Georgia Patch is a brand planner with a background in creative advertising. She’s a deep thinker on a mission to curate a life defined by nourishing friendships, wholesome conversations, music so good it makes you cry and books whose stories linger. Her guiding policy is to ‘always be curious’.
Cover Image: @carmengracehamilton
These ladies took the gender equality debate to Google, and won!