The first female CEO in Google images is…Barbie

Below rows of images portraying countless males, some which feature Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg in various poses, and stock images of males holding or next to a piece of paper that says “CEO”, you’ll find Barbie, pink briefcase in hand.

Barbie trumps Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Xerox’s Ursula Burns.

Ironically, the image is attached to a 2005 article from parody site The Onion, entitled “CEO Barbie criticised for promoting unrealistic career images”. Of course, the article makes light of the lack of women in leadership roles.

“[Barbie] furthers the myth that if a woman works hard and sticks to her guns, she can rise to the top,” the article read. “Our young girls need to learn to accept their career futures, not be set up with ridiculously unattainable images.”

The issue was apparently first brought to national attention when a mother found her five-year-old daughter “playing CEO” with her doll.

“Women don’t run companies,” the article joked. “Typically, those with talent, charisma, and luck work behind the scenes to bring a man’s vision to light. Real women in today’s work force don’t have Barbie’s dream corner office. More often than not, they have cubicles – or Dream Kitchens. I mean, what’s next? Accepted by her male peers Polly Pocket?”

Sure, it’s a spoof, but it’s not exactly the type of message you want linked to the first CEO image of a woman. 

Read more about women in leadership roles:

Several more all-male rows later, five to be exact, the first flesh-and-blood woman is revealed. Debbie Cavalier is CEO for Berklee Online and vice president of Berklee College of Music.

“The world needs more women CEOs,” said Cavalier, “there is no doubt about that.”  

But Cavalier doesn’t fault Barbie. “I’m a huge fan of Barbie and think Mattel has done a good job providing myriad positive ‘role-model Barbies’ that convey women can do and be anything,” she said. As long as she’s “wearing CEO clothes” and not “bathing suits by the Barbie dream house pool”.

There’s more wrong to Google’s search algorithm than first meets the eye. The company uses different image categories for each gender. When you expand the search to “male CEO”, the categories include “chief executive officer” and “office”. In comparison, for women they include “outfit” and “attire”.

A study made by researchers of the University of Washington, “Unequal representation and gender stereotypes in image search results for occupations“, found evidence of stereotype exaggeration and under-representation of women when comparing actual employment data to image search results, based on a study of the top 100 Google search results for 45 different occupations.  

The research compared the percentages of women who appeared in the top 100 Google image search results for different occupations with the previous year’s employment statistics to find out how many women actually worked in that field.

Shockingly, when the occupation matched the statistics, the images that appeared were professional-looking. However, when searching for stereotypical male jobs, the images tended to be more provocative and inappropriate.

“A number of the top hits depicting women as construction workers are models in skimpy little costumes with a hard hat posing suggestively on a jackhammer. You get things that nobody would take as professional,” said co-author Cynthia Matuszek, an assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering at University of Maryland.

Read more about how image search results affect our perception.

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