A one-day course training South-Bohemian librarians to edit Wikipedia, Research Library (via Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers at Rutgers University found occupational gender biases persist in online images. On Monday, a study published in the  Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology revealed that photos of four professions — librarian, nurse, computer programmer, and civil engineer — tended “to represent and reinforce existing gender stereotypes,” according to the press release. The research group focused on four websites in particular — Twitter, NYTimes.com, Wikipedia, and Shutterstock — to draw their conclusions and then compared those numbers with the figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to measure for discrepancies. 

The findings showed a gendered split between the STEM professions and those associated with healthcare or informational services. Women over-indexed in photos featuring nurses and librarians but were missing in photos featuring computer programmers and engineers. The disparity is more pronounced when automated by an algorithm, like Twitter, over a selectively curated site like the New York Times or Shutterstock. 

The Rutgers University researchers suggest more direct curation of images would help lessen the disparity, like what Getty accomplished a few years ago when it added more photos of women in male-dominated fields. The good news is that there have already been some small improvements within the past year, as researchers found more women in male-dominated professions in 2019 than 2018. The aim of the study is to “prevent biases from being designed into digital media platforms, algorithms, and artificial intelligence software.”

“Gender bias limits the ability of people to select careers that may suit them and impedes fair practices, pay equity and equality,” said study co-author Mary Chayko. “Understanding the prevalence and patterns of bias and stereotypes in online images is essential, and can help us challenge, and hopefully someday break, these stereotypes.”

As recent movements towards addressing workplace discrimination have continued, research around gender bias is growing. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has studied the effects of gender bias in movies and TV shows for years, and it cites the Scully Effect as evidence that when children see women in STEM fields in entertainment, they are more accepting of women in STEM fields in the real world. Some girls may even be inspired to pursue STEM professions because of their favorite characters. Gender bias is also a problem behind the camera, where often many of the images we see are photographed by men.