Language gender bias

Unbeknownst to international media, a small drama was consumed over the last few days in the Italian media world. In Rio, the female Italian Archery team nearly made to a first-ever bronze medal, prompting regional sports daily QS-Quotidiano Sportivo to headline:

trio-cicciottelle-300x194

The trio of chubbies nearly achieves an Olympic miracle

Outrage exploded: the President of the Italian Archery Federation issued a protest letter and the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, Giuseppe Tassi, was promptly fired, two months ahead of his planned retirement date of  September, 2016.

Today, well-known columnist Beppe Severgnini calls this dismissal “excessive”, on grounds that Italian politicians often trespass the boundaries of gender-correctness (specifically citing as example the leader of the Northern League Matteo Salvini who recently at a rally compared a female political opponent to a sex doll).

severgnini cicciottelle

Let me offer a scientific reason why I think such a sin by a journalist is more sinful than when done by a politician (despicable as it may be).

In a recent study on machine learning, researchers at Google studied so-called “embedded word associations” using Word2vec, a large corpus of text (nearly three million words) coming from Google News. These associations allow a machine to respond to the query:

London : England =  Tokyo : X

with the answer “Japan”. As some other researchers at Microsoft Research have found, however, Word2vec is significantly gender-biased; for example the query:

Man : Computer programmer = Woman : X

returns “Homemaker” or the query:

Father : Doctor = Mother : X

returns “Nurse”.

If this gender bias is powerful enough to make its way into something very young like machine learning, imagine what it does to the programming of the human brain. Journalists therefore – as the authors of such texts, hold a special responsibility in being vigilant about this bias, and this is why IMHO, their sin is more despicable.

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