The Hidden Way Algorithms Can Limit Our Self-Image — and What We Can Do About It

Try searching for images of “greatest professors” and you’ll see very few women — here’s why that’s a problem and what’s being done.

Still from Pantene's S.H.E. Hero Video.
Still from Pantene's S.H.E. Hero Video.

Search engines don’t always reflect the full spectrum of reality in their search results. “For example, you’re not going to find too many women in image results when you look up ‘greatest professors,’” says Safiya Umoja Noble, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of Information Studies and African American Studies at UCLA and the author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. While the browser’s value to us has been immense, allowing us to access vast amounts of information in moments, it continues to mirror some of our worst stereotypes and faulty beliefs. 

“What does it mean when you search a concept like ‘beautiful hair’ and you only get back results of   white women with straight hair?” Noble asks, pointing to decades of research on the harmful impact racist and sexist representations in the media have on women and people of color. “When girls see themselves sequestered in certain occupations they believe those to be the only options available to them. It’s a real barrier to their ability to envision themselves in other careers,” she says. 

To help disrupt what Noble calls “algorithms of oppression,” Pantene, in collaboration with Thrive Global, is unveiling a new Chrome extension called S.H.E. – Search. Human. Equalizer. – that will diversify search for over 150 terms that often yield biased results, including “greatest engineers,” which yields no women, “school girl,” which elicits highly sexualized images of young women, and “great hair,” which largely pulls up white women’s hair. While it’s a small step, it’s a crucial one in the right direction, according to Noble. “Any efforts to try and diversify representation, especially in search, is incredibly important because so many people engage with search engines, such as fact-checkers and truth-tellers, as an educational apparatus,” she says, noting the dangers of biased results becoming the verdict on what it true and possible. 

By installing the Chrome extension, searching via S.H.E., and clicking on an unbiased result, you’ll be doing your part to begin to eviscerate prejudice from algorithms. Each disruptive result we click is a small change that over time will have a larger cumulative impact on our perceptions and on society as a whole. 

“It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that Pantene is continuing their investment in diversity and diverse representation,” Noble says, pointing out that the brand has a good track record for inclusivity. “People need to be able to imagine alternative possibilities to the current state of search,” she says, and emphasizes going forward we’ll also need more search tools informed by teachers and academics.” That said, she feels it’s a solid first step in addressing underrepresentation and misrepresentation.

Help take the bias out of search by visiting, installing the Chrome extension and searching via S.H.E. With every new click on an unbiased result, future search will become more equal as algorithms learn.

Disclaimer: Experts consulted for this article are not paid consultants for Thrive Global or Pantene.

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