Sunday, April 25, 2010

Keywords: Feminists, Overreaction

I’ve noticed a phenomenon, spanning at least two instances that I know of, where feminists will get very upset over a misunderstanding involving keywords in searching a database. Normally, I like feminism—I think it does a lot of good for the world—but this is a silly overreaction that can be harmful. I’ve seen this happening on Sociological Images, with regard to a database of college majors, and on’s now-defunct blog in regard to its thesaurus.
Here are the basics of how these databases work. The programmer makes an entry that users can search for. They then give this entry a number of keywords to help the entry be found. These keywords may span several words, but the entry will be found even if the user only searches for part of a keyword. This is supposed to aid in usability, but can result in entries popping up in the search that the user finds irrelevant. This should be easily understandable to anyone, especially on where the keywords are listed with each entry.
I like Sociological Images in general. I think it’s a really cool site that a lot of times makes good observations. This is not one of those times. On April 9th, Lisa posted screenshots collected by a female user named Ajax, which showed her searching for “women” in a database of college majors. The database brought up Women’s Studies and Fashion Design. Believing this to be blatant sexism of the database maintainers, Lisa got really ticked off about it.
This would make perfect sense if the search function returned only women’s studies since it has “women” in the name and all.  But fashion design?  It suggests that somehow fashion design has been marked as a major-for- or about-women, but no other major has. 
What about, say, history?  Nope, no women in that.
Psychology?  Well, there is a Psych of Women class.  But, otherwise no.
Economics?  Don’t make me laugh!
Queer Studies? Afro-Am? Wait? Women are gay!? And black!?
Politics?  Oh honey, don’t worry your pretty little head about it!
Literature?  Oh yeah!  We forgot literature!   Let’s slap a “women” tag on that one and call it a day.
The commenters in the post’s thread, however, were quick to point out that the Fashion Design entry actually had the keywords “women’s fashion” in addition to “men’s fashion”, and if you were to search for “men” you would also get Fashion Design. Commenter Jesse also makes the good point that the programmer would have been trying to categorize the entries in a way that would allow people to find what they were looking for. For better or worse, fashion design can be associated with women, and tagging every entry with “women” because women can do anything would be pointless. To Lisa’s credit, she updated the post with a screenshot sent in by a male user that shows him getting Fashion Design as a result of a search for “men”. She fails to offer an explanation, though, and just presents it as a curious thing.
The thesaurus incident I found out about backwards. A while ago, the thesaurus was heavily flawed, missing several words. I went to try to suggest something to, and found their blog, where I learned about why it had these flaws. Apparently, a group of feminists had flamed the site because a search for “weaker” had brought up the entries for “female” and “lady” because they listed the synonym “weaker sex”. (It looks like the flamers came from Jezebel and Feministing.) In response, the site took out their current database and replaced it with a lesser quality one that did not include “weaker sex” in addition to many other things.
Okay, this was not being sexist by saying women are weaker (than men). This was them reflecting the English language, which is flawed. “Weaker sex” was an entry of its own, with its definition, and listing as a synonym of “female” and “lady”. It is an indication of societal sexism that the phrase should exist at all, but a dictionary needn’t be sexist for listing it.
Part of this, I believe, is misunderstanding of how the database works. Searching for “weaker” doesn’t bring up weaker things, and thus making an offensive reference to women being weaker, but rather anything containing the word “weaker”. As it turned out, “weaker” was part of one of the keywords.
Now, several people were there at the blog saying “I’m a feminist, and I disagree”, and I can see many rational posts in the Feministing thread from women who got the database thing, but it’s hard to argue with large groups of feminists throwing vitriol at you, and went along with it. For several months, there was this flawed version of the word database and I nearly gave up the site. Well, eventually, got a new database that included the missing words. “Weaker” now brings up “weak” with a Nearby Words section that lists “weaker sexes” for clarity.
All’s well that ends well? I think it’s remarkably silly that this outrage happened at all. I get that feminists use anger to keep them strong, and that this anger is often justified, but it can lead to serious irrationality. These database incidents are blatant overreactions. This is part of the reason why feminism is so disrespected, and I certainly disrespect this aspect of it.
(Image from Jezebel)

1 comment:

Zoey said...

Well, yeah that just about sums it up dragon claws, there is realy not much to comment...