If you search for the word "CEO" on Google Image Search, you'll be met with rows and rows of mostly white men in suits. This isn't surprising.
However, what is surprising is that the first image of a female CEO is of Barbie, not a real-live woman at all but a toy. But wait. It gets worse. The photo isn't even of a real Barbie doll but a graphic created for an article published by The Onion in September 2005 about the backlash against Mattel for selling a doll that "encourages young girls to set impractical career goals."
This was first pointed out by T.C. Sottek over at The Verge, who was inspired to see what kinds of images a Google Image Search for the word "CEO" brought back after the release of a preview of a new study from the University of Washington. The study looked at how gender was represented in online image search for 45 different occupations.
The study found that women were "significantly underrepresented" in a few careers in a Google Image Search, including CEO. Though 27 percent of CEOs in the United States are female, the study found that 11 percent of the people depicted for that search were women. On the flip side, there are just as many women as men in the telemarketing field in reality, but a Google Image Search for telemarketers yielded results with 64 percent women.
So why is this important? Well, the types of images that people see when they search for particular occupations on Google Image Search could impact their expectations about how men and women work in those fields. The study found that on average, 7 percent of a study participant's opinions about men and women in certain jobs were shaped by the images they saw in online search. Researchers got these results by asking participants a series of questions about a specific job, then showing them "a set of manipulated image search results" of both genders in those jobs two weeks later before asking them that same set of questions again.
"You need to know whether gender stereotyping in search image results actually shifts people's perceptions before you can say whether this is a problem. And, in fact, it does — at least in the short term," co-author of the study Sean Munson said in a statement.
Though Google Image Search does supposedly use an unbiased algorithm to get its results, according to Business Insider, the study's authors still hope that companies take these results under consideration when working on their search engines in the future.
And for the record, Mattel has released a CEO Barbie doll before. It's not great that the first image of a female CEO we see on Google is a Barbie doll, but it's actually not terrible either. Toys have a strong impact on shaping the minds and behavior of children too.