How Algorithms Enforce Women’s Silence-and How To Stop It
Simple technical fixes can automate and elevate or surface women’s voices in online conversations, so women’s voices rank with men’s.
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Latanya Sweeney, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science, now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of politics, explained in a recent NOVA episode how when you put a subject in a search engine, a little instant auction happens behind your screen, determining which ads you’ll see. You and your attention are the Google products that advertisers buy.
She was talking with Dr. Safiya Noble, at UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. Noble says her background was advertising, so she always thought of Google as an ad platform, but she sees how the public depends on the internet to learn about the world. Many think of search engines as a public service. They are not.
Having been stalked by advertisers who seem to know when I’m looking for an umbrella or a coffee table, I knew this. But their explanations made me really think. I do count on Google to help me, like I count on my state’s health department and the post office. But like any corporation, it’s purpose isn’t public service, but profit for its owners and investors. Google’s sales of you and me and what we’re wanting are now worth $3 trillion.
The Internet, first greeted with enthusiasm in the ’90s, promising to connect us all, is at least one reason for more and more people no longer trusting their state health department or the post office. Marie Tessier, who moderates comments at The New York Times, writes about this in her important new book. Digital Suffragists: Women, the Web, and the Future of Democracy. She says the algorithms that connect and collect people, also tend to amplify their differences. They can deepen divides.
In a Ms. interview, she explained:
“#MeToo was a great example of where the internet can gather like-minded people. Moira Donegan started The Shitty Media Men list in 2018-and all of a sudden, you end up knowing what bad guys are in leadership. The Women’s March and Black Lives Matter are other examples-but it also easily empowers other organizing principles like anti-Semitism or misogyny. The internet has a way of concentrating things.”
This sounded similar to what Noble and Sweeney had found.
On the day I was scheduled to interview Marie Tessier, somehow by the influence of digital systems, and possibly the position of the planets, I spent my morning, trying to access accounts at three different websites-only to learn in each case that either my username or my password was incorrect. And, of course, none would tell me which one was wrong. I consulted my digital and paper lists, scraps of post-it notes, my Google password manager until, overcome by frustration, I accomplished nothing of what I’d set out to do. Don’t even ask me what it was.
When I talk with other digital plebians, I find such vexations common, as well as a tendency to go down unintended rabbit holes that waste time and end focus. We are never alone on the internet, but who or what our companions are-a bot, a friend, a hacker or a phisher-is seldom clear. Who exactly is this overseer, god, parent or stalker, who knows binary code better than I? And must I get a Ph.D. to keep up? It makes me long for the sensual world I was born to, where I waddled in my diapers, learned to love spaghetti, grew to discover the utility of tampons and my birth canal, roaring sweetness of babies and orgasms.
The dangers if you’re female are more real than virtual. Much of Tessier’s book, and Nova’s episode with Sweeney and Noble, Search Engine Breakdown, emphasizes the way that harmful racial and sexual stereotypes are perpetuated and even amplified on the web. The internet is not the library, organized by the Dewey system where, thanks to open-minded librarians, you’ll see a range of perspectives on any given subject.
Noble said, “One weekend, my nieces were coming over to hang out and I was thinking, ‘Oh, let me pull my laptop out and see if I can find some cool things for us to do this weekend.’ I just thought to type in ‘Black girls,’ and the whole first page of search results was almost exclusively pornography or hyper-sexualized content.”
This began her research and led to her book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. By 2012, she says she saw some change for Black girls. (Not coincidentally, Tarana Burke began #MeToo in 2006.) But Noble cites another more recent study from The Markup that found Black girls, Latina girls and Asian girls profoundly linked with hypersexualized content, and “zero for white girls, zero for white boys.”
Yet it’s not as if the internet is Happyville for any woman who aspires to move outside prescribed gender boundaries we thought we’d outgrown. Tessier wrote to remind us:
“As long as men have created ruling councils and legislatures, societies were defined by the rights and the voices of men alone. Sadly, the fossils of historic gender segregation and the official exclusion of women from the public square have functioned as the new bones of digital technology and the public conversations they support.”
Tessier began her research when she noticed how few commentators at The New York Times were women; when she looked, she saw this was true on other news sites, the norm about three to one, with women more present in feminine realms. She noted how Trump attacked and derided “The Squad,” four outspoken women in Congress, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley.
“[T]he attack was in racist terms,” wrote Tessier, “and most mainstream commentators missed the intersectional message that targeted the congresswomen as women.” Their “double burden” was not typically acknowledged.
Tessier uses The Iliad to illustrate how old this is. Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, told his mother not to vex him, but to go upstairs with her maids, wash her face, change her dress, while he handled the “matters of men. The British classics scholar Mary Beard says this was the first example in Western history of a man telling a woman to shut up, and it was directed at his own mother.”
“The thing I’d like women to understand,” Tessier said, “is women’s voices are missing in public bodies until they have a supermajority, or a woman is chairing the conversation. That is what people need to see, to see what is normal. … Underrepresentation is normal.”
Women are interrupted more frequently when we speak, disparaged when we advocate for our own interests or that of mothers and their families. We’re subjected to rape and death threats when we assert our own views in public.
Her research shows that women are interrupted more frequently when we speak, disparaged when we advocate for our own interests or that of mothers and their families. We’re subjected to rape and death threats when we assert our own views in public-even about subjects as lighthearted as characters in video games. We’re told our voices, tones and approaches are unacceptable, and denied protection under the law, “all for the audacity of acting on our legal rights in the public square.”
To avoid remaining “The Silent Sex,” a Princeton business study she often cites in her book, Tessier advocates a standard of equal time and equal voice as benchmarks for public bodies and public space. Gender, race and ethnic analysis need to be at the heart of business tools and development of software and digital tools, something that both Noble and Sweeney called for too, along with regulation.
“A society where women reasonably fear to speak or write in public is a terror society, not a free society with the rule of law,” wrote Tessier. She advocates for platforms that allow women to control who they’re talking with. Her book calls for creating meaningful criminal and civil penalties for cyber harassment, violent threats and online mobs.
Simple technical fixes can automate and elevate or surface women’s voices in online conversations, so women’s voices rank with men’s, she notes. (The New York Times, where Tessier works, is one of the few places that curates its comments.) “Understanding and calling out the interruption as a primary example of overbearing and inappropriate behavior is a central part of the cure for democracy,” she reported. Which prompted my own inner questions: Aren’t tweets mostly interruptions? What’s happening to paragraphs?
She thinks technology leaders and civic and corporate boards of directors must take primary responsibility for cultivating equal voices and influence for women, and names tools like GenderMeme and CoralProject to do it. But ultimately, she calls on each of us to become suffragists in this new digital public square, to look inside to find our own voices and use them to organize. She encourages women “to break the patterns of millennia by summoning courage, empowering each other. … I do think that the world, our country, is learning that women’s voices need to be heard. It’s also good for business, for women to be equal.”