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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SportsJuly 27, 2023

The internet has erased women’s sport – here’s how to fix it

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Alex Casey speaks to former Football Fern Rebecca Sowden about the project setting the online record straight about women’s sporting achievements. 

She’s found countless inaccuracies when it comes to women’s sport online, but one statistic is closer to home for former Football Fern Rebecca Sowden. Her old teammate Amber Hearn is the highest goalscorer for New Zealand with 54 goals scored, but the internet would have you believe that the record belongs to Chris Wood (33 goals). Search results also suggest that Cristiano Ronaldo has scored the most international goals (123) instead of Christine Sinclair (190), or that the All Blacks and South Africa have won the most Rugby World Cups (3) instead of the Black Ferns (6). 

This search engine bias has led to Correct the Internet, a new project launched in Aotearoa at the start of the year to set the online record straight about women’s sporting achievements. The brainchild of Sowden, founder of women’s sport sponsorship consultancy Team Heroine, she explains that Correct the Internet came about after her and a group of creatives all began noticing the same thing. “Even when you’d Google women’s sports matches or results, you’d always get served mens, even if the men weren’t actually playing,” she says. 

With the World Cup looming, the inaccuracies became harder to ignore. “Whenever we were trying to find out information about these incredible footballers, it kept serving up men’s footballers, even though it was the women who were holding all these top statistics.” Take Canadian striker Christine Sinclair, currently poised to become the first man or woman to score at six World Cups, who had been erased for stats about Cristiano Ronaldo. “She’s such a brilliant player and yet she just was not getting the recognition that she’s earned on the internet.” 

The team dug a little deeper and found that this “terrifying” search engine bias wasn’t just limited to women’s football, but every sport from rugby and rowing to cricket and cycling. “We came together and said ‘right, what can we do about this?’” Collaborating with agency DDB, the team devised a simple online tool where users can send feedback to the likes of Google, Bing, Yahoo and Baidu. “It’s such a simple solution – they actually give feedback that goes up to the engineers, and that’s what people power is all about,” says Sowden. 

While search engine results can influence everything from kids researching school projects to journalists fact-checking a story, Sowden is also acutely aware of the impact that this inaccurate information might have on emerging AI platforms. “These are only going to take these incorrect stats and information and amplify those inconsistencies,” she says. “Just like the search engines, they’re just reflecting this unconscious bias that we’ve written into the algorithms and into all of society as humans.”  

Image: Correct the Internet

What gives her hope is the fact that, because humans have created this mess, we can also be the ones to fix it. “People can go on, pick one of the data sets we’ve seen that are incorrect, and help to fix them with just three or four clicks, making the journey really seamless.” The project has gone viral since the campaign first launched at the USA vs New Zealand game at the start of the year, attracting international media attention and public praise from sporting legends from Alex Morgan to Andy Murray. “New favorite campaign,” Billie Jean King wrote on Instagram

Correct the Internet has also evolved to include a school curriculum element, with Australian platform Creatable coming on board to turn the concept into an educational resource. “It’s about actually understanding what the problem is, how to take action, and girls and boys in classrooms actually going in and using the internet to help create change.” Sowden refers to it as a movement rather than a campaign, and is very comfortable for “anyone to pick it up, take ownership of it and evolve it in a way that suits their needs.” 

Image: Correct the Internet

Of course, bias isn’t just limited to women’s sport. “This isn’t just isolated to female athletes. It’s the unconscious bias that sits across musicians, artists, media, everyone. While it might seem seem like a small thing to just have to scroll down the page, it affects all pockets of society.” Along with righting the stats of her sporting heroes and former teammates, Sowden’s hope is that Correct the Internet is a space for reflection on the biased systems that we have created. “It challenges society to really take a hard look at our history, and then actually try to fix it.” 

While we’ve “moved the dial” when it comes to women’s sport, Sowden says there is still a long way to go. “A lot of those attitudes and passing comments are still there,” she says. The 2022 Sports Media and Gender report found that sport made up one third of all media, but that there was only 19% visibility for women in local sporting coverage. “That’s still a far way off 50%,” says Sowden. “We need to make bigger, bolder progress and braver, bolder campaigns and actions to help fast track and catch things up.” 

“Men’s sports have had decades ahead of women’s sports, and we don’t have time to wait around.”

Learn more about Correct the Internet at free-entry equity discussion Equalize on August 2 in Tāmaki Makaurau.

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