Look up "greatest writers" on Google, and you get a sea of dead white men staring back at you. Same goes for "famous comedians," "best movie directors," and "greatest leaders." The images generated by a search for "perfect hair" all reflect white women sporting straight styles. "School girl" yields photos of sexualized Halloween costumes instead of girls raising their hands in science class.
Bias is rampant everywhere — including in search engine results. The search algorithm seeks to provide relevant information to a user by prioritizing results with the most clicks while also factoring in user search history (and its associated perceived attitudes or preferences) as well as geography. Which means without intervention, a search engine can become an echo chamber that upholds unconscious biases and perpetuates them further with each new search.
According to a study conducted by the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, unsurprisingly, people trust and choose higher-ranked search engine results than lower ones, and in said results, men typically rank higher than women, who don't show up until the fourth image on average. And when it comes to search results for jobs, women are especially underrepresented. Instead of populating searches for "analysts" or "reporters," one study showed that an AI algorithm learned to associate women with images of a kitchen from more than 100,000 images from around the internet.
But starting today, Pantene is launching a campaign to break this cycle. Enter: S.H.E. – short for Search Human Equalizer — a Google Chrome extension that works on the search backend to deliver more equalized and accurate results for 150 common queries from "greatest thinkers" to "top CEOs." (In the latter category, only 10% of search results represent women, despite the fact that 28% of CEOs are women.) And they're not stopping at 150 — the program is encouraging users to flag additional terms with biased search results to eventually add to S.H.E.'s term bank as the program grows — the goal being to give accurate representation to women and people of color in search across the board.
It's a vision that Arianna Huffington, a longtime Pantene brand partner, sees as an essential part of reaching gender equality.
“Women are transforming the world around us every day – taking risks, standing up for what they deserve, and reaching heights they were once told were out of reach. I’m proud to support Pantene and its commitment to making these accomplishments more visible with the launch of S.H.E.," says Huffington in an interview with Refinery29. "The conversation around advancing gender equality is such an important one, and it’s vital that we expand it to include the way people and companies depict women online. I’m thrilled that S.H.E. is accessible to everyone and helping future generations grow up in a more equal world.”
Ilaria Resta, vice president, haircare at Pantene, says Pantene, a leading brand for women, feels a responsibility to combat this lack of accurate representation. And personally, as a mother of a daughter who uses a search engine to do research for school projects, she feels it's especially important that search be more equalized.
"We are biased as a society of human beings, and search is biased as a reflection. Everybody defaults to search as a third-party neutral mathematical source of information — we all believe that if it's there, it must be true," says Resta. "It's all of us. We all need to be aware of where these biases are. I would really love for the conversation to start and to get people actually suggesting biases we're not even aware of for S.H.E."