Why Google Docs Thought 'Congresswoman' Was an Error

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

spellcheck2.banner.jpg

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:

spellcheck.banner.jpg

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.

Presented by

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

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In