Recently, United Nations Women (UNW) published a series of ads designed to draw attention to sexism against women. Unfortunately, in the process, they have been so one-sided that they have undermined the legitimacy of their own claims about the status of women.
The ads use Google's 'autosuggest' feature to expose what the world is searching for and, by implication, what the world is thinking. The campaign "uses genuine Google searches to reveal the widespread prevalence of sexism and discrimination against women."
Taken in isolation, their claim is true, and you should have a look at what comes up and get ready to (yet again) get angry about how women are regarded by our culture; I certainly did.
But that was nothing compared to how angry I got when I looked into things further, and discovered what UNW were leaving out.
I am always interested in finding out more about gender issues. So when I saw the campaign, the first thing I did was jump onto Google and test the same phrases, both gender-flipped and as they were reported. There was nothing earth-shattering here, except to say that strong gendered statements about men came up also. I'm not sure how UNW concluded that one is any better or worse than the other, because from where I sit it just looks like a whole lot of stereotyped criticisms with no obvious winners.
My curiosity had been piqued, however. I dug deeper and assessed the content of the pages containing these phrases. This is where the plot began to thicken; if you take a statement like "women shouldn't drive cars" (which is one of the auto-suggests, obviously in relation to the freakish Saudi ruling on the matter), some of the people writing that phrase agree with it. But many are 'false positives', written by opponents (writing something like "The notion that women shouldn't drive cars is insane"). Since the UNW campaign makes no distinction between these results, it is effectively claiming that web content that is in favor of women is actually against women.
Also, a simple search on "women shouldn't" (one of the phrases the UNW campaign used) brought up a surprising amount of results relating to things that are good and should be on the internet, such as advice that "pregnant women shouldn't be near cats". (I'm not saying I necessarily agree with the science on this occasion, but the intention is clearly positive rather than misogynistic). This made me realise that things were much more nuanced than the advertising campaign was suggesting.
It was time to broaden my research further. I tried the search "I hate women", which brought up 2.4m responses - and yes, please be clear, there is some truly revolting stuff out there. However, there are almost three times that number - 6.2m, to be precise - of hits on the phrase "I hate men". Now that I was a little curious, I assessed the first thirty responses for each search, and found that there were false positives for both, but slightly more for the "I hate women" search (around a third). This suggests that the figures are actually more extreme than three-to-one against men, in terms of which gender we hate most.
I kept searching.
"Women are beautiful" brought up 8.8m responses, compared to 1.3m for "men are beautiful". According to our global consensus, women are almost seven times as beautiful as men. And yes, I understand that being beautiful is both a privilege and a constraining thing; but such is the dual nature of all privilege.
What about the inverse? "Women are ugly" gets 58,000 responses; "men are ugly" gets some 305,000. There is little room for confusion about whether being seen as ugly is a good or a bad thing. Although it forces one to be appreciated for who one is and what one does, I think most people would rather not be thought of as ugly. Women are five times better off than men on this one, apparently.
"I trust women": 180,000.
"I trust men": 200,000.
Some balance, finally? No, apparently not. I looked more closely, and this search is the most dramatic piece of sexism of the lot, in my opinion. Almost every hit on "I trust men" is a false positive, meaning, it's in a sentence like "Why I don't trust men". Almost every hit on "I trust women" is congruent.
If we're drawing conclusions about the roles of men and women in our culture - which is what United Nations Women set out to do with this campaign - then it seems we have almost complete trust in women and almost no trust in men. This is deeply disturbing; as a person in a male body, I have spent most of my life being prejudged as untrustworthy - so much so, that this level of discrimination is actually my definition of normal. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be prejudged as trustworthy, because it's just so far from my reality. When I let myself imagine, to the best of my ability, what it would be like to be assumed to be trustworthy by default, it made me want to cry.
"Women are bad at": 130,000 (Supposedly including maths, parking, and sports).
"Men are bad at": 609,000 (Supposedly including communicating, and being in bed).
While the specific things that men and women are allegedly bad at are pretty stereotypical and predictable, apparently we are five times more likely to criticise men than we are women.
I was partially relieved to find something to genuinely buck the trend: "I love men" gets a rather phenomenal 13.4m results compared to the 1.5m for "I love women". This is a pretty extreme difference, and it's supported by a shallow level of research (in that the first thirty search results seem to be congruent with the intention of the phrase and without false positives). So in short, we are nine times more likely to write about our love of men than our love of women. I don't mean to diminish this statistic, however it's worth bearing in mind that women tend to be the more prolific writers about matters of love, sex and relationships. Since most women are heterosexual, search results are going to find a skewed number of hits.
Finally, I did some image searches on sexy and ugly. Out of the first 100 'sexy' images, about 95 were women. Out of the first one hundred 'ugly' images, very close to half were men and half were women. Again, I suspect most of us would prefer to be beautiful rather than ugly, for all the complexities it brings.
I am not claiming that I have found an unbiased, conclusive way of demonstrating the vexed question of who receives more sexism or ill-treatment in our culture. (For the record, I don't think such a thing can be proven, and nor would it be all that useful to know).
However, there are two disturbing points to be made: The first is that this experience was a smack in the face for me about just how much sexism there is against men (especially when a lot of people claim there is no real sexism against men). I feel a little sick after what I have discovered.
The second disturbing thing is just how easy it was to uncover the one-sidedness of the most powerful, well funded organisation on the planet in relation to gender equity. This is the organisation that sets the tone in terms of what research is conducted, what programs are funded, what laws are made, and what we collectively agree on as being gender issues. The reality seems to be that this organisation is horribly biased; I shiver when I think about the time that must have been spent deliberately filtering out the results that didn't match the original hypothesis, by people who would identify as being in support of justice and equality. And I'm just one person, with a couple of hours of curious research time. I have described my methodologies (above) in full, and you can see that they involve nothing more complicated than being able to use a web browser.
The story as presented by UNW (and their global advertising partner) has apparently been picked up and repeated by most mainstream news agencies. As at the time of writing, out of thousands of rebroadcasts, I can't find any that have questioned the data or methodologies. Are we really that blind and / or one-sided in our understanding of sexism? Why are we collectively so slow to use the analytical tools that have taught us so much about the status of women to help us better understand the status of men? To what extent is our consensus understanding of gender and sexism based on research that's almost never been questioned, methodologies that are rarely gender-flipped, and assumptions that are pursued even if the data isn't supportive?
If this is what we're doing, then of course it's going to seem like women are far worse off than men; it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
If we are to pursue equality, we have to walk our talk. We must use the same tools and keen sense of analysis that we have used to understand the experiences of women, to understand the experiences of men. And no, the solution is not to set up 'United Nations Men'; the solution is to work together.
The basic point being raised with this campaign is great - there are often severe limitations around what women can and can't do, and it has to stop - but it's a very carefully selected portion of the greater story.
If the aim of this campaign was to inspire a conversation about sexism on the net, then yes, let's have that conversation - all of it. We have to stop being so sexist in the ways we look at sexism.
First published by www.genderequality.com.au.