Who do you think is the first woman you would see if you typed ‘CEO’ into the Google Images search bar? Carolyn McCall of EasyJet, perhaps, or how about Angela Ahrends, who used to run Burberry and is now a big noise at Apple?
Whoever you guessed, I’m willing to bet you didn’t expect her to be 11.5 inches tall and made of plastic. But when I tried the experiment, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Sixty or so photographs of men – all but one white – flicked up before the first woman boss appeared.
And this feminine titan wasn’t an actual human female – she was CEO Barbie. That’s right, the highest ranking woman boss on the planet is, apparently, a doll.
Now you don’t have to be a rabid feminist to think there is something a bit off here. But it’s not Google that is prejudiced; it’s us. The algorithms that power its search engine are programmed by people, and are driven by what they learn from our behaviour online.
But the embedding of real world bias into the online world can have damaging consequences for women’s employment prospects and finances. Another – rather more sophisticated – experiment by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in the US published last year found that Google showed high status, high paying jobs with a salary of more than $200,000 to significantly fewer women than men. Again, this probably isn’t Google being evil – it is just reflecting the assumptions that go in to the algorithm.
Not convinced yet? Consider another US study, on open source communities, where coders develop software, and where their work is accepted or rejected by their peers. Women’s coding was rated more highly than men’s – but here’s a catch: only if she used a ‘gender neutral profile .’ When a coder was identifiably female, her work was more likely to be rejected.
Being female is also not a good idea if you are selling items on eBay, the online auction site. Israeli researchers earlier this year found that when a vendor was obviously female, she would be offered 20 percent less than men when selling new products.
It’s intriguing. Do the bidders think goods are actually worth less because a woman is selling them? Do they think women are a ‘softer touch’ and will accept less? Or that somehow they deserve less? Whatever the reason it suggests covert and unconscious discrimination are still powerful forces.
Consider the case of female fund managers. I’m willing to bet that most investors, if you asked them, would say they will put their money with the best performing manager, whether that person was male or female. But they probably wouldn’t. Citywire, the financial news and information site, conducted some research and reckons that investors suffer from ‘buyer’s bias’ and prefer male managers, even though there is no significant difference in performance between the sexes.
Academics at the University of Mannheim carried out an experiment that illustrates the point. Investors were asked to split money between two identical ‘tracker’ funds, one apparently run by a man and another said to be run by a women. Even though these merely track the performance of an index, so the gender of the manager is irrelevant, investors still put ‘significantly less’ in the fund purportedly run by a woman.
Women have made huge strides in finance, economics and politics. Janet Yellen is leading the mighty Federal Reserve, Christine Lagarde is at the helm of the International Monetary Fund and soon the US might have its first female president.
Which make it all the more depressing that these new variants of sexism are springing up. Until they are eradicated, there’s only one thing to do. If you are a female eBay vendor, a coder, an online job seeker or a fund manager, make like a lady Victorian novelist. Pretend to be a bloke.
Ruth Sunderland is City Features Editor of the Daily Mail