Ad series for UN Women by Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai

Ad series for UN Women by Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai

In my previous posts here and here I have lamented how mainstream advertising agencies most often perpetuate the stereotypes when portraying women so lo and behold when I see a mainstream advertising firm taking up the issue of stereotyping I was excited to see it but unfortunately that was short-lived. This recent campaign by UN Women using Google’s instant search tool box to “reveals widespread sexism” has stirred many an emotion. They range from disbelief to evidence of what they knew already.

But is Google telling the truth? Google Instant is an “autocomplete” feature – which, according to their site is:” a search enhancement that shows results as you type.”

It is based on the company’s careful mining of hundreds of billions of searches performed each month. For anyone who wants to know how Google describe how it works here’s the official blog explaining during its launch. It is important to understand how this works before we use its results and say its telling the truth. Perhaps its seemless-ness in our daily search imparts the impression that its the truth. Google seems to know most often what I am looking for when I start typing in the search box, hence my conclusion is that it knows what I want – and when what it throws up as result is exactly what I wanted – I begin to feel that it is telling me “the truth”. I am exaggerating the chain of thought but in a sense the UN Women campaign is basing it on this principle – What google search is showing is the “truth”.

The campaign though powerful misses the important consideration which is that Google instant is based on an algorithm that uses important factors such as your location, your search history, your language, your timing, your browsing history, the “freshness” of any topic in determining what text to complete your sentence with. Here’s a dated but useful article to show how it works in detail. All these factors including Google’s policy on what it censors influences what shows up.

From a campaign point of view its capitalizing on 1 factor: shock factor, not just the shock of how deeply rooted sexism is but the shock of seamless integration of Google instant search box in our lives. Which is a good campaign but it is also using incorrectly the public perception that there is a direct linearity of relationship between what Google autocomplete throws up with what we all really think (ie is the truth). The bigger problem for me is not what this campaign is subtly but definitely using but rather the ability of a company to use its algorithmic prowess to feed us what we should be believing as the truth. The great danger this poses is that we are stuck in a loop of information that reinforces incorrect information for all future searches. One way, at least for me, was to turn autocomplete off just by changing one setting. I recommend trying it then perhaps we will really search for what we wanted rather than be sucked into believing what is being fed to us is what we were looking for.

Let this post not confuse you that I am saying sexism does not exist, let it not be misread for one minute that we are not surrounded by injustice towards women. That is the truth. But this post is not about that and if you did not understand that well then this post was lost on you.

The launch of the first all-women bank in India is a significant move by the current government (upcoming election considerations notwithstanding). Bharatiya Mahila Bank, India’s newest public sector bank, with a 1,000 crore initial budget under the Plan during 2013-14. According to an article on the bank’s site, the finance minister, P Chidambaram said:

“The idea is to empower women in the country and bring banking services at their doorstep. The bank will take initiatives to open accounts of women not only through branches but by organising camps all across the country,”

The women’s bank will support and coordinate with self-help groups and other organisations to promote lending to women. It will also tie up with existing state-run financial institutions to provide other services such as insurance and pension products.

In a recent interview with the Chair-woman of the bank, Usha Ananthasubramanian, said in response to the question, how will this bank be different from other banks?

We must appreciate the fact that women are underutilized as an economic asset and so there is a lot of untapped potential. We need to engage women economically. This bank’s approach will be to inspire people with entrepreneurial skills. We will tie up with NGOs. We will also locally mobilize women to train them in vocations like toy-making or driving tractors or mobile repairs. We will try to reach deeper rural pockets.

Ms. Ananthasubramanian echoes Angel Gurría, the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in a 2013 April study published in the Harvard Business Review “Women are the most underutilized economic asset in the world’s economy”. The study place India firmly at the starting gate, where countries have made no systemic efforts to improve the economic position of women by, say, raising female literacy and education rates in the chart below.

Matrix courtesy Booz & Company

The hopes and promises are high from the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (BMB), which is one of the very few all-women banks. Some others are: Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank (Mann Deshi Bank) in Maharashtra, Konoklota Women Urban Cooperative Bank in Assam, Shri Mahila SEWA Sahkari Bank Ltd in Ahmedabad. None of these other banks received as much fan fare as the BMB will receive in the coming months. The hopes however are just as greater of this new bank. These other smaller, self starter bank models have shown that women do benefit but taking it to scale to and making sure that its operations are truly centered on women – well only time will tell. The proof will be in the pudding, whether engaging women economically will mean economic empowerment for women or purely about getting to deeper rural pockets as Ms. Ananthasubraminam says.