Unconscious gender bias in the Google algorithm

Interview in Metode with Londa Schiebinger, director of Gendered Innovations: “We were interested, because the methods of sex and gender analysis are not in the university curriculum, yet it is very important. The first thing our group did was to develop those methods and we present twelve methods on the website. We knew it would be very important to create case studies or concrete examples where sex and gender analysis added something new to the research. One of my favorite examples is machine translation. If you look at Google Translate, which is the main one in the United States – SYSTRAN is the main one in Europe – we found that it defaults the masculine pronoun. So does SYSTRAN. If I put an article about myself into Google Translate, it defaults to «he said» instead of «she said». So, in an article of one of my visits to Spain, it defaults to «he thinks, he says…» and, occasionally, «it wrote». We wondered why this happened and we found out, because Google Translate works on an algorithm, the problem is that «he said» appears on the web four times more than «she said», so the machine gets it right if it chooses «he said». Because the algorithm is just set up for that. But, anyway, we found that there was a huge change in English language from 1968 to the current time, and the proportion of «he said» and «she said» changed from 4-to-1 to 2-to-1. But, still, the translation does not take this into account. So we went to Google and we said «Hey, what is going on?» and they said «Oh, wow, we didn’t know, we had no idea!». So what we recognized is that there is an unconscious gender bias in the Google algorithm. They did not intend to do this at all, so now there are a lot of people who are trying to fix it….

How can you fix that?

Oh, well, this is the thing! …I think algorithms in general are a problem because if there is any kind of unconscious bias in the data, the algorithm just returns that to you. So even though Google has policies, company policies, to support gender equality, they had an unconscious bias in their product and they do not mean to. Now that they know about it, they can try to fix it….(More)”