Google Shows Men Ads for Better Jobs

Before I get to the study that found Google Shows Men Ads for Better Jobs, let’s try an experiment. In an ideal world where women make up 50% of the population, every other CEO should be a woman. Of course, our world treats does discriminate against women executives and other diverse professionals in the workplace. This we know. What we are just learning is that the unconscious bias has tentacles that reach into the tools we rely upon to do our work. To see for yourself, Google the term “CEO” and examine what comes back in Google Images.

(Waiting)

When I typed in the letters “CEO” and hit return, the Google Images page loaded the photographs below. They are overwhelmingly male. 85% of the images are of men, including silhouettes and cropped photos that indicate the person is male. 15% are female. That is nowhere near 50% it would be if there were no gender discrimination. Yet, that 15% is more than twice the percentage of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2017. According to Fortune, just 32 of the 500 companies listed in the Fortune 500 are led by female CEOs. That number translates to a paltry 6.4% of the U.S.’s biggest companies (by revenue). Remarkably,  6.4% is the highest proportion of female CEOs in the 63-year history of the Fortune 500. Clearly, we have work to do, more than we previously imagined. Before, we worried about humans discriminating against humans. Now, we need to worry something that is not human. Bots, algorithms, and platforms that stitch all that technology together may perpetuate bias as well.

Technology We Use Discriminates Against Us

We’ve reached a new state in our tech evolution. When we google, “CEO” and Google returns images that are overwhelmingly white and male, we tell ourselves that Google is just reflecting the world back to us — a world where discrimination exists.  We believe that the Google bots that crawl the web are color and gender blind. We trust the algorithms that answer our search queries are more objective than humans. One couldn’t possibly make an argument that Google’s search algorithm and its related ad-serving platforms are inherently biased. Or could you?

Google CEO images from a search for "CEO" 12/5/2017 at 7.24.25 PM

Google CEO images from a search for “CEO” 12/5/2017 at 7.24.25 PM

Google's ad targeting discriminates against women. It shows men ads for better jobs. Click To Tweet

Google Offers Men Ads for Better Jobs

According to MIT Technology Review — a story was highlighted by Gizmodo’s Kate Knibbs — Google shows men ads for better jobs. That’s right, Google ads offer you better jobs if it thinks you are a Guy. Google’s ad targeting may be sexist.

That means even if you Lean In, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has advised; and even if you chalk up as many accomplishments and degrees as your male counterparts; you’re still not going to get as many intriguing, higher paying job opportunities dangled in front of you online as a male version of you.  MIT Technology Review explained it this way:

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the International Computer Science Institute built a tool called AdFisher to probe the targeting of ads served up by Google on third-party websites. They found that fake Web users believed by Google to be male job seekers were much more likely than equivalent female job seekers to be shown a pair of ads for high-paying executive jobs when they later visited a news website.

Anupam Datta is the associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who helped develop AdFisher. He believes the gender targeting disparity highlights the need for tools to uncover how online ad companies differentiate between people. Interestingly, AdFisher could not determine what in Google’s ad-serving ecosystem caused the discriminatory result.

How AdFisher Works

Professor Datta’s explains how AdFisher works in his 2015 study, “Discrimination and Opacity in Online Behavioral Advertising“:

“AdFisher, an automated tool that explores how user behaviors, Google’s ads, and Ad Settings interact. AdFisher can run browser-based experiments and analyze data using machine learning and significance tests. Our tool uses a rigorous experimental design and statistical analysis to ensure the statistical soundness of our results. We use AdFisher to find that the Ad Settings was opaque about some features of a user’s profile, that it does provide some choice on ads, and that these choices can lead to seemingly discriminatory ads. In particular, we found that visiting webpages associated with substance abuse changed the ads shown but not the settings page. We also found that setting the gender to female resulted in getting fewer instances of an ad related to high paying jobs than setting it to male. We cannot determine who caused these findings due to our limited visibility into the ad ecosystem, which includes Google, advertisers, websites, and users.

 

Why does Google Ads Show Men Ads For Better Jobs?

While Dr. Datta acknowledges opacity made it impossible to determine the cause of ad-serving gender bias, he did detail possible reasons.

  • The advertiser’s targeting of the ad
  • Google explicitly programming the system to show the ad less often to females
  • Males and female consumers respond differently to ads and Google’s targeting algorithm responds to the difference (e.g., Google learned that males are more likely to click on this ad than females are)
  • More competition existing for advertising to females causing the advertiser to win fewer ad slots for females
  • Some third party (e.g., a hacker) manipulating the ad ecosystem
  • Some other reason we haven’t thought of.
  • Some combination of the above.

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on Google to do something about its ecosystem that do that advertised job opportunities are offered equally to men and to women. Google has a stated corporate philosophy to do no evil in its “Ten things we know to be true“. Yet, it wasn’t Google, but rather Microsoft, that took action to address ad-platform bias. Microsoft has begun collaborating with Professor Datta to prevent gender bias and other troubling patterns in ad-serving on the Bing platform.

If gender bias is an unintended consequence of job opportunity ad-targeting, it means women executives and women technologists are at a disadvantage more than previously imagined. Women make less than men, on average, in their current workplaces. But that’s not all. Their future is also shortchanged because, so far, ad-targeting displays ads for better jobs to men. Professor Datta’s research serves as a cautionary tale of unintended consequence created by the technologies we use every day. I am reaching out to Professor Datta to find out what kind of progress has been made in the two years since his study was published. (For more on what Sheryl Sandberg thinks, check out our post on Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.)

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