When anti-sexism becomes proof for sexism – UN Women campaign with Google’s autocomplete

Follow-up article: Who put all that sexism into Google’s Autocomplete?

Yesterday, I saw an article about a campaign created by the UN women posted in my Facebook timeline. It uses kind-of screenshots of the Google autocompletion algorithm, where a phrase like “women shouldn’t” is completed to “women shouldn’t have rights”, “women shouldn’t vote”, “women shouldn’t work” and so on.


These automatic completions, based on occurrences of the Internet’s websites, shall prove how common and widespread sexist ideas still are.

I wanted to find out more about these apparent sexist phrases and looked closer at the actual search results of one of the phrases, “women shouldn’t …”. For every autocompleted phrase seen on this poster, I clicked on the first five results and tried to find out the context of that phrase.

Quick readers may scroll down to the summary.

“women shouldn’t have rights”

  1. Reasons why women shouldn’t have rights?
    Being a girl, I obviously don’t agree with this, but for school, I have to make a speech looking at a popular topic from a different standpoint (the more radical the better). I’m trying to come up with a valid argument about why abolishing women’s rights is a good idea. Any thoughts? Thank you!
  2. I think that the men who say that women shouldn’t have rights, should look in the mirror one time, and see how pathetic they are.
  3. No, I’m not talking about whether the Equal Rights Amendment should be approved. I’m referring to some statistics I happened to run across while researching another story. NationMaster.com, a site that compiles statistics from numerous sources, provides the following table of the percentage of women agreeing with the statement, “Women should have equal rights,” in a 1999 poll:#1 Netherlands: 80%
    #2 Australia: 77%
    #3 United Kingdom: 73%
    #4 Canada: 70%
    #5 Belgium: 70%
    #6 Germany: 70%
    #7 United States: 62%
    #8 Switzerland: 39%
    #9 Japan: 21%”
  4. If Women Have No Rights! A Questionnaire […] If women shouldn’t have rights, what should they do in the case of domestic abuse? Should they merely put up with it? Given the fact that, under a rule of thumb suggesting that women shouldn’t work and have no rights, should she just put up with it?
  5. “women shouldn’t have rights”, “Women shouldn’t vote” Usually this is a sort of disclaimer when someone is clearly what they are trying to convince people that they are not, but it fails since well, obviously. It’s entirely false.

All five sources make a clear anti-sexist statment.

“women shouldn’t vote”

  1. Oh horrors! What if women were allowed to vote? Today is Women’s Equality Day, the 93rd anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the vote. It’s a moment to remember not just the activists who doggedly worked to include women in the democratic process, but also that process’s unfinished business–and those who stood in the way. Below, a compendium of caricatures and cartoons (from the Library of Congress) envisioning the dystopia that female voters would create.
  2. Why Women Shouldn’t Vote? The society believes that women should not vote because women are emotional, non logical, and want the government to provide health insurance as well as other services a husband would provide so that they don’t have to depend on a man. Although, this is seen as a sexist and chauvinistic view a number of countries in the world still don’t allow women to vote.
  3. Woman Voter Says Women Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Vote
    Janis Lane, the lady leader of the Central Mississippi Tea Party thinks that women shouldn’t be allowed to cast a ballot this (or any) election. In something that’s akin to hamsters eating their young, Lane has turned on her own kind, and is practicing a brand of self-hatred that you just don’t see many people admitting to these days.
  4. Women Shouldn’t Vote, Says Fox News Guest Jesse Lee Peterson
    Can we all stop pretending that our country hasn’t gone wackadoodle now? Please, can we? Because the insanity has gotten beyond difficult to take. We’re treating our Constitution like a cafeteria plan, and it’s not acceptable. No, wait, it’s worse than not acceptable; it’s downright un-American with a capital “U.”Fox News guest and Sean Hannity bud Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson has figured out the root of our problems, he claimed in a “sermon” delivered to the congregation of YouTube. He knows where we went wrong.
    Giving women the right to vote.
  5. ‘Vote No on Women’s Suffrage’: Bizarre Reasons For Not Letting Women VoteThere’s a lot that’s flawed about the United States’ voting system: long lines at polling stations, broken machines, voter intimidation, and more. But we can at least take comfort in the fact that, in theory anyway, all citizens in good standing, men and women alike, have the right to vote. This wasn’t always the case, of course. Black Americans didn’t have the constitutional right to vote until 1870, and it took women even longer to gain suffrage: the 19th Amendment didn’t pass until 1920, following a long debate.

On this phrase, the picture is not so clear anymore. The first one is clear anti-sexist. The second one tries to explain a sexist attitude while the author him- or herself emphasizes his or her disagreement (“this is seen as a sexist and chauvinistic view”). The third and fourth quote refer to secondary sources, the authors also underline their disagreement. The last one presents historic, almost 100-year old views.

“women shouldn’t work”

  1. Ten Lies The Church Tells Women
  2. Should women work outside the home?
    Work should be a human right, not a masculine privilege. […] If you’re a single mom with bills to pay and you have to put food on the table, are you going to sit by and be like “Women shouldn’t work outside the home, so I’m just going to let this kid starve, we’re just not going to have any electricity…”?
  3. Why do Indian men think that women shouldn’t work after their marriage?
  4. Culture of India: Why do Indian men feel that women shouldn’t work after marriage?
  5. This Week In WTF: Women Shouldn’t Work Because of Conservative Science

While the first and second are clearly anti-sexist statements, merely quoting direct speech to argue against them, the third and fourth seem to point to a real sexist view in India. Number five again quotes a secondary source to argue against it.

“women shouldn’t box”

  1. Am I the only person unhappy about women boxing?
    Sports like wrestling and boxing are training women to be as aggressive as men
  2. London 2012 Olympics: judge women boxers the same as men, says Team GB chief Rob McCracken
    “Saying women shouldn’t box is like saying women shouldn’t sprint.”
  3. Skirting the Issue: Women boxers, liminality and changeI analyze media coverage of this initiative to expose the different coexisting logics of the field, which range from ‘women shouldn’t box at all’ to […]
  4. The Big Read: Women’s boxing at the Olympics
    “A boxer is a boxer. I don’t treat them any differently. I don’t see them as women boxers, I just see them as boxers,” said McCracken. “Saying women shouldn’t box is like saying women shouldn’t sprint.
  5. Women in Sports
    And Nicola Adams is quick to give short shrift to those who say women shouldn’t box – either because of the potential health risks that come with being smacked forcefully in the face, or because they think a women’s place is in the home, not a boxing ring. “Look, times have changed and it’s about equality,” she says. “Women should be able to do any sport they want, whether it’s previously been male dominated or not.”

Finally, we’ve got something: The first result is a clear primary source with a sexist statement. But the rest remains clearly anti-sexist. Only the third result points to an academic paper counting sexist phrases.


The vast majority of the search results contains anti-sexist statements. The sexism is merely used as a quotation to criticize the attitude behind.

It is therefore very strange that these autocompleted phrases were used to prove sexism. It seems as if the creators of the campaign didn’t even look at the search results.

This doesn’t mean that there is no sexism in the world. It just means that Google’s autocomplete algorithm is a bad way to measure it.

And interestingly, in the meantime the first result of “women shouldn’t have rights” changed: Now it points to an article about that very campaign: Powerful UN Women ads reveal horrifying sexism in Google autocomplete.

So also thanks to that campaign, Google will continue to complete “women shouldn’t” with “women shouldn’t have rights”.

10 thoughts on “When anti-sexism becomes proof for sexism – UN Women campaign with Google’s autocomplete

  1. Carina

    Thank you for a great post. If Google searches is the new empirical way to measure the prevalence of an opinion I think we’re all very lost.

    1. J.A.

      I feel it’s worth pointing out here that autocomplete is based on the searches, not the actual hits google presents – so your summary of Google hits doesn’t actually tell us much.

      Also: It’s an ad. It’s pointed and uses simple rhetoric, because it’s an ad. If the UN based a report on google searches, that would be worrying, but they haven’t do that, they made an ad.

      1. Georg Post author

        I feel it’s worth pointing out here that autocomplete is based on the searches, not the actual hits google presents

        This is only partly true:

        The search queries that you see as part of autocomplete are a reflection of the search activity of all web users and the content of web pages indexed by Google.

        So the content of the indexed web pages does play a role.

        But you’re right that also the search activity plays a role, I wasn’t aware of that. But even if so, we can’t be sure this reflects sexist attitudes, because:

        • The phrases can be part of longer phrases, e.g. “women shouldn’t have rights” can be part of “why women shouldn’t have rights?” (We see this in the content of the webpages, as documented above, so this effect may also likely apply to the searches)
        • Even if the search activity contains the pure sexist phrases, we don’t know the user’s motivation. One could search for “women shouldn’t have rights” just to see how often it occurs in the web – as I did for instance during the research for this article. Searching for a phrase doesn’t necessarily mean to approve it.

        Also: It’s an ad. It’s pointed and uses simple rhetoric, because it’s an ad. If the UN based a report on google searches, that would be worrying, but they haven’t do that, they made an ad.

        Well, the ad contains a message, it says: “Look at the real world and see how many people have sexist ideas!” There’s a “reality-factor” in it.

        And you can see it in the articles about the campaign:
        Powerful Ads Use Real Google Searches to Show the Scope of Sexism Worldwide Simple visual for inequality
        (Italic formatting by me).

        Try to imagine the ad instead with a photo of a toilet wall or a sheet of paper with a sexist phrase written on it. Would it still work the same way?

  2. Pingback: Who put all that sexism into Google’s autocomplete? | Georg Jähnig

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