Gender Bias in Old Books. Rewrite Them?

October 9, 2019

Here is an interesting use of machine learning. Salon tells us “What Reading 3.5 Million Books Tells Us About Gender Stereotypes.” Researchers led by University of Copenhagen’s Dr. Isabelle Augenstein analyzed 11 billion English words in literature published between 1900 and 2008. Not surprisingly, the results show that adjectives about appearance were most often applied to women (“beautiful” and “sexy” top the list), while men were more likely to be described by character traits (“righteous,” “rational,” and “brave” were most frequent). Writer Nicole Karlis describes how the team approached the analysis:

“Using machine learning, the researchers extracted adjectives and verbs connected to gender-specific nouns, like ‘daughter.’ Then the researchers analyzed whether the words had a positive, negative or neutral point of view. The analysis determined that negative verbs associated with appearance are used five times more for women than men. Likewise, positive and neutral adjectives relating to one’s body appearance occur twice as often in descriptions of women. The adjectives used to describe men in literature are more frequently ones that describe behavior and personal qualities.

“Researchers noted that, despite the fact that many of the analyzed books were published decades ago, they still play an active role in fomenting gender discrimination, particularly when it comes to machine learning sorting in a professional setting. ‘The algorithms work to identify patterns, and whenever one is observed, it is perceived that something is “true.” If any of these patterns refer to biased language, the result will also be biased,’ Augenstein said. ‘The systems adopt, so to speak, the language that we people use, and thus, our gender stereotypes and prejudices.’” Augenstein explained this can be problematic if, for example, machine learning is used to sift through employee recommendations for a promotion.”

Karlis does list some caveats to the study—it does not factor in who wrote the passages, what genre they were pulled from, or how much gender bias permeated society at the time. The research does affirm previous results, like the 2011 study that found 57% of central characters in children’s books are male.

Dr. Augenstein hopes her team’s analysis will raise awareness about the impact of gendered language and stereotypes on machine learning. If they choose, developers can train their algorithms on less biased materials or program them to either ignore or correct for biased language.

Cynthia Murrell, October 9, 2019

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