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The uncomfortable truth about how we view working women, in one simple Google search

A screenshot of Google image search results for "CEO"

Search “CEO” on Google images and the first woman to appear after dozens of men is likely plastic. Barbie trumps even Yahoo's Marissa Mayer on the Internet’s symbolic ranking of female success. And the image is actually a joke, an illustration for a ten-year-old Onion story called “CEO Barbie Criticized For Promoting Unrealistic Career Images.

This algorithmic folly tells an uncomfortable story about how we picture—quite literally—women in the workplace. The misrepresentation problem could hurt real women’s chances in job interviews.

Researchers at the University of Washington recently analyzed the top 100 Google image search results for 45 professions, including not only chief executives but doctors, welders and bartenders. They found female workers are generally underrepresented online, compared to occupation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About twenty-seven percent of American CEOs, for example, are women. But only 11 percent of the Google image results for “CEO” showed women (not including Barbie).

In addition, many images retrieved by the web’s top search engine happen to be hyper-sexualized caricatures. Some female construction workers in midriff-baring flannel and jean shorts seem better dressed for a Halloween party than, say, a demolition site. (Researchers dubbed this the “sexy construction worker problem.”)

“It’s part of a cycle: How people perceive things affects the search results, which affect how people perceive things,” said co-author Cynthia Matuszek, who now teaches computer ethics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Matuszek recalls sitting in a robotics lecture last year at the University of Washington, where she earned her doctoral degree in computer science. A male colleague illustrated researchers in his Powerpoint presentation as “all guys, classic nerds,” she said. But a caretaker was shown in a slide as “a plump woman in her thirties who was wearing a pink suit.”

The stereotypes irked Matuszek, and she's not the only one wondering about the power of images. On Monday, the Australian economist Justin Wolfers shared a family moment with his 79,000 followers:

Last year, Getty Images, the world’s largest photo providers to advertising agencies and media outlets, including the Washington Post, teamed up with Sheryl Sandberg’s female empowerment organization to create the Lean In Collection: 2,500 images “of female leadership in contemporary work and life.”

They sought to combat and replace insulting, inaccurate depictions of women, said Pam Grossman, Getty's director of visual trends. Women Laughing Alone With Salad is a viral example of visual stereotypes gone strangely sad. Search "feminism" on Shutterstock and find a woman shaving her face. Also featured: A woman ostensibly about to remove a man's head.

"Images can influence the way we perceive each other," Grossman said, "and, frankly, the way we perceive ourselves."

The Lean In Collection has nearly doubled in size since it launched. Clients in more than 60 countries have now purchased the photos: a little girl in a karate uniform, a lady skater nailing a jump, a table of toasting business women. Proclaimed Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

It's hard to measure the collection's impact, Grossman said, but people now have more opportunities to "see the amazing things women are doing all over the world."

The top-selling photo today, however, sticks to the conventionally feminine. A woman and a man, both designers, observing shoes:

Adds Grossman: "We find it refreshing the top-selling photo shows a man and a woman working together on equal footing... She's a creator, she's an entrepreneur and that flips the script."

About eight months ago, Matuszek and her colleagues at the University of Washington decided to test the power of popular image. They wanted to know if something as seemingly trivial as search results could sway someone’s perception of how many women work in a certain field, and whether they’re competent.

The researchers surveyed 21 people -- a pool too small to make any sweeping statement, Matuszek acknowledges, but big enough for a glimpse into our cultural psyche -- starting with questions like: What percentage of construction workers are women? Do you believe the person in this photo is good at their job?

Two weeks later, they followed up, prompting participants to sift through Google image results before answering the same inquiries.

Responses changed after Google images were introduced, according to the study, which was published this week. Search results could determine 7 percent of a participant's subsequent opinion about the number of men and women in a particular field, the authors calculated. And a worker was, on average, deemed more competent if he or she fit into a gender stereotype.

Google search results aren't the problem, Matuszek said. But changes in someone's behavior after exposure to certain images, she said, may highlight an unconscious bias employers should seek to understand and address.

“The takeaway isn’t that we should change the way search works," she said. "This kind of thing could tie into whether someone gets hired for something. You could see a female engineer in a job interview and think she looks less competent. You should question why.”