Google Autocomplete and Global Sexism

By Amanda Grigg

UN Women has a new campaign that uses google autocomplete to demonstrate the scope of sexism worldwide. Ads in the series place autocomplete search results for queries like “women cannot” and “women should not” over close-ups of a diverse group of women. According to creator Christopher Hunt, “The adverts show the results of genuine searches, highlighting popular opinions across the world wide web” (more on whether Hunt is right about this below).

Autocomplete results are known to vary by location, which inspired me to do some quick google searching of my own (I also thought it was time to get the men involved) and I found a little something for the optimists/male breastfeeding proponents:


Of course I also found this (thanks patriarchy/E.L. James):


and found out that the male version of this:

women should not

is this:

men should not

Fellow Jilter (Jilted?) Graham noted that the search results of autocomplete suggestions don’t always perfectly match the sentiment of the autocomplete. So, an autocomplete of “women shouldn’t vote” for a “women shouldn’t” search conducted in New York might turn up a couple of articles about the women’s suffrage movement (my search turned up this) in addition to more recent coverage critiquing someone who opposes women’s right to vote (here and here) and not turn up much in the way of meaningful opposition to women voting. I don’t think that this makes the campaign any less powerful or accurate as a reflection of sexism, for two reasons. 1. the campaign is global and we could imagine that there are places where correspondingly sexist results would turn up and 2. as far as I can tell, autocomplete is based on popular searches not popular content, so regardless of what the search turns up, the suggestions reflect a large group of people searching for those (sexist or anti-shortsist) terms. Of course we can’t be sure of what people wanted out of their search – they could have been declaring a personal opinion or searching for arguments against women serving in combat for a term paper. So I’ll give some ground on whether all autocomplete results are direct evidence of sexism and maintain that there is ample evidence elsewhere that sexism remains a global issue.


3 thoughts on “Google Autocomplete and Global Sexism”

  1. I agree with Amanda that results in America will be more anti-sexist than those in America. Women’s issues are an enormous issue globally still — my limited contention is that its degree in developed countries has diminished to an amazing degree — and deserves to be celebrated thus.

    I don’t agree that we can comfortably impute the motives of searchers regardless what their search terms turn up. Anyone wanting to research sexism, whatever their motives, will search for sexist terms. This is a common, general problem in text analysis, and why something called Sentiment Analysis has been developed — an attestation of a word or phrase can be positive or negative depending on context.

    The force of the campaign lays in the assumption assumption that there are zillions of sexists all over the world googling for justifications of their biases. That assumption is not clear at all.


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