By Erin McNeill, president, Media Literacy Now
The US women won the World Cup just about a week ago, to much fanfare.
If you go to Google images today and type in “World Cup,” what would you expect to see? Dramatic photos of women playing soccer?
Well, keep scrolling down and you’ll finally come across the first image of a woman playing soccer – a highly sexualized image. Same for the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh… I stopped scrolling.
So the term “World Cup” on its own apparently doesn’t apply to women who play soccer in the world of Google images. That first-tier term only applies to men. To see photos of the women’s team that won on July 5, you have to include the qualifier, “women’s.”
Just like using qualifiers in the sports world for women’s leagues or teams – such as “LPGA,” or “WNBA” – these are signals that the women’s contest is not the main event. There is a category at the top of the Google images page labeled “women’s,” so those photos are separately listed if you’ve typed in “World Cup.” You have to click again.
Why has Google separated the images in this way? The algorithm that Google uses to index images is certainly beyond me to figure out. However, separating the photos of women from the general search term “World Cup” is clearly a conscious choice on the part of Google. Separating the images of women from the primary query for the World Cup is a signal that Google considers these images as secondary, which in turn signals that the events and people in these images are secondary to the “real” World Cup.
What do you think? Do labels matter? Do words and categories on Google images matter?