What google teaches us about our views on the sexes

Chris Harrison, a Ph.D. student in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon, created an infographic of how “he” and “she” are used in Google’s digital books archive, which contains  200 years worth of published material. The graph shows the 120 most common words used after “he” and “she,” ordered in decreasing frequency.


When I asked Harrison what he found most interesting or surprising about the data, he responded (spoken like a true engineer): “Not any one thing was most interesting.  As with many large data sets, there are many fascinating patterns.  It is analogous to a single thread being rather unremarkable.  From from many threads one can weave a tapestry.”

Cliff Kaung, Editor of co.design, writes: “It’s hard to avoid that age-old conclusion that men are seen as active agents of influence in their world, while women are viewed as more passive and emotional. What’s surprising is that an analysis of millions of books over 200 years bears this out.”

Indeed. “He argues” while “she loves.” “He believes” while “she likes.” “He can” while “she gives.”

Some of these frequent pairings are reassuring–of course I want women to be associated with love and giving to others, but the dark side of these associations are clear. Women–for the past 200 years of literature–have inhabited more emotional, reactionary, and service-oriented positions, while men have been the actors, the thinkers, the doers. I’d love to see an infographic contrasting the full 200 years of language association with the last 50, wouldn’t you?

Thanks to John for the heads up.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/zeenacheda/ Dan C

    Very cool! I hope that, as an interface engineer, he’s working on an interactive version that will allow us non-engineers to monkey with the presentation of the data.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    So then it’s back to the discussion of whether women are biologically inclined to be care-giving and helping, rather than bold, sweeping, and actively engaged as is often the case with men. And to add an extra wrinkle to it, some believe that gay men naturally gravitate towards fields that women do as well, and for similar reasons.

    Does this imply that gay men are more akin to women, or that they find themselves just as limited and hamstrung, but for different reasons altogether?

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Huh, too bad I mostly do comics instead of prose. Then I could use the phrase “she stabs” (which is active) all the time instead of just visually depicting it, which Google won’t register.

  • http://feministing.com/members/oldenough/ Gary

    Even if the records reached back 4,000 years the findings would be the same. He defended, provided and protected while she loved, supported and nurtured. Now that women have broken out of their bonds of traditional roles, men, women and children are so much happier and society is flourishing. To think that we were wrong for so long.

  • nicolechat

    You know, I think this is conforming less to gendered expectations than I would have assumed, particularly for “she.” You’re right that “loves,” “likes” and “gives” are unsurprisingly connected with “she,” but there are others in there – she moved, she started, she decided – that I would expect to see more frequently connected with “he” than “she,” if we’re just going by stereotypical gendered expectations.