A few nights ago I was talking to Emily McManus, editor of TED.com, about math. I mentioned my friend Jennifer Ouellette, an english major who taught herself calculus, which is no mean feat. From that she wrote the wonderful book The Calculus Diaries, and I thought Emily would like it.
She agreed and the next morning went to find it. Like me, she remembers concepts a lot better than names, so she searched for “english major who taught herself calculus.” Pretty straightforward. Except this happened:
Oof. As you can see from the number of retweets, that struck a nerve with a lot of people. Of course, this isn’t the fault of a single person or group. Google’s algorithm is based on cues from what other people are searching for and uses context to try to figure out what an user meant. But algorithms, “are never as neutral as they appear.” So while no one thought “only men would teach themselves calculus,” it’s also true that that’s what the culture as a whole has decided, at least in aggregate. Whether we like it or not, we associate something about that phrase with men more than women. This has happened before, and will likely happen many times again. One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are. In this case that we’re living in a quite deeply sexist culture.
The deep irony, though, is that while people are responding to this quite strongly, Ouellette’s name isn’t in the tweet that’s going viral. The same algorithm that held up this rather unfortunate mirror ensures that neither Jennifer Ouellette’s name nor the name of her book, The Calculus Diaries, is getting attached to that mirror. So, this post is a very conscious (and probably feeble) attempt to rectify that. Maybe people seeing that tweet and googling the phrase will come across this post, and maybe they’ll even want to buy the book.