A long line of research shows that the words we use directly affect the way we think. Whether we notice it or not, our language is infused with countless gender-biased words. Study shows that ‘language appears to play a particularly important role in forming people’s attitudes toward gender and occupation’ (Harris, Biencowe, Telem, 2018).
The effects that gender bias has on language can influence women to be ‘less likely to apply for jobs with masculine suffixes’. The terms cameraman, mailman, fireman and salesman create a biased view on what we, as a society, think are appropriate roles for men and women.
ELaN Languages, an independent translation organisation in Belgium, wanted to show the impact of the words we use and how those words unconsciously shape our biases. Especially because they encounter those words every day, either by translating for clients directly or through their online translation tool.
ELaN Languages wanted to tackle our unconscious bias by updating their online translation tool with a new feature: ‘the unbias button’. This plug-in offers unbiased translations of biased words. Making us aware of our unconscious bias by translating bias words, such as job titles, into gender-neutral words.
Fireman becomes firefighter, mailman becomes mail carrier. And the reverse is also true, with midwife becoming birth assistant. And thus, thousands of biased words in ElaN Languages’ database received an unbiased translation into English when the ‘the unbias button’ was applied.
To inspire change throughout the translation business, ELaN made this extensive database of gender-neutral words available to the giants of this industry, such as Google Translate, iTranslate and Yandex Translate.
Creating ‘the unbias button’ seemed deceivingly simple, but required a team of experts consisting of professional linguists, translators and polyglot programmers. First ELaN Languages had to compile an extensive list of biased words by hand to create a database for the translation tool. Then their translators had to match this database with a broad selection of unbiased alternatives.
The tool was then designed to highlight biased words in translations by ELaN’s programmers and could provide several unbiased alternatives for every highlighted word on click. And by using ‘the unbiased button’ the entire translated text could be filtered to change biased words to unbiased ones.
A film was created, highlighting these biases that had lingered for so long and the importance of getting rid of unbiased words for future generations. ELaN Languages invited other translation giants like Google Translate