Why Google Docs Thought 'Congresswoman' Was an Error

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Live by the algorithm, suggest sexist changes by the algorithm.

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I was composing an article about Rep. Michele Bachmann on Monday when I noticed something odd: The spellcheck function of Google Docs had flagged a couple of words that weren't misspelled. One was "herself," in a sentence that referred to a "presidential candidate"; the spellchecker asked, "Did you mean: himself?" The other was the word "congresswoman," to which the spellchecker suggested, "Did you mean: congressman?"

Was Google's spellchecker not-so-subtly taking issue with the idea that a woman could be a presidential candidate or a member of Congress? It certainly looked that way. Here's another screenshot from my draft:

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What the heck was going on? The answer may lie in the fact that Google's spellchecker isn't a traditional spellchecker that relies on a static dictionary of known words. Rather, it's a dynamic system that uses the Web to discern the correctness of spelling and grammar in context. "This is very similar to how the 'Did you mean...' feature in Google search works -- it's based on an algorithm that looks at what spellings and word pairings are most common on the web," Google spokesman Tim Drinan explained. "This has a few advantages, including contextual suggestions, homonym correction, and constantly evolving suggestions."

If that feature is indeed the culprit, it would seem to indicate that rather than sexism on Google's part, sexism more systemically -- the fact that women in elected office are rare compared to men -- was at fault for the "congresswoman" bug. There are currently 76 women in the House of Representatives, compared to 362 men, and women make up just 17 of the 100 members of the Senate. Perhaps Google's algorithm simply figured it was statistically likely I meant "congressman" based on the fact that it's a vastly more common title.

Still, while women in Congress are shamefully underrepresented, they're hardly anomalous at this point. The spellcheck issue still seemed odd to me, and Drinan agreed. The sentences I'd typed, he said, "don't appear to have any obvious cues that would make 'herself' or 'congresswoman' incorrect, so I've passed them along to our engineering team," he said. "They are going to investigate if there is a bug or some other error."

As of this writing, the investigation is still ongoing, but the bug has been fixed. I can't tell you whether it was a particularly pernicious Google Easter egg, a reflection of society's biases or just a weird glitch. But one thing ought to be obvious: Congresswomen and women presidential candidates are not a mistake.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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