Gender discrimination in the workplace is a well-documented phenomenon. But a new study suggests it's happening in new and unexpected ways — like in the ads shown to Internet users employing Google to help them find a job.
The study, presented at the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium on July 2 and led by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the International Computer Science Institute, was performed with the help of AdFisher, a tool the team developed "for automating randomized, controlled experiments for studying online tracking." The researchers used AdFisher to create a series of fake profiles for imagined job seekers, splitting them up by gender to test what kind of ads men and women were shown.
The results were startling: Female-identified profiles saw far fewer ads showing high paying jobs than male-identified profiles. The two most frequently reported URLs for male profiles were for a career coaching service promising executive positions that made over $200,000; according to the study, Google showed these ads 1,852 times to male profiles, and just 318 times to female profiles.
And women? The two most frequently reported URLs for female profiles were for a generic job posting service and an auto dealer. It was, the study noted, "a finding suggestive of discrimination."
"I think our findings suggest that there are parts of the ad ecosystem where kinds of discrimination are beginning to emerge and there is a lack of transparency," Anupam Datta, one of the study's lead researchers, told MIT's Technology Review. "This is concerning from a societal standpoint."
What's Google's role in this? While the study certainly doesn't make Google look good, it did concede that determining the search giant's specific role is difficult. According to Google, companies themselves have a say in which of their ads get shown to which users.
"Advertisers can choose to target the audience they want to reach, and we have policies that guide the type of interest-based ads that are allowed," Andrea Faville, a Google spokeswoman, told Technology Review. "We provide transparency to users with 'Why This Ad' notices and Ads Settings, as well as the ability to opt out of interest-based ads."
But as the Washington Post's Julia Carpenter points out, this explanation isn't entirely convincing. The fake users created by AdFisher were brand new; their search histories were untouched, and the profiles were virtually identical save for the differences in gender.
"That would seem to indicate either that advertisers are requesting that high-paying job ads only display to men (and that Google is honoring that request) or that some type of bias has been programmed, if inadvertently, into Google's ad-personalization system," she wrote.
It's not the first time Google has landed in hot water over discriminatory practices, either. In a study published in April, researchers found that Google image results for "CEO" skewed heavily male; in May, the company scrambled to fix a glitch in Google maps that equated the White House with a racial slur.
It's an indication of a deeper problem. Google may outwardly trumpet its role in championing diversity and inclusion, but search results speak louder than words, and as multiple studies have illustrated, there's a great deal of work to be done.
But it's not just Google. As the Washington Post noted, algorithms and artificial intelligence are only as capable as the people who program them — and discriminatory human behavior is par for the course.
Still, as the AdFisher study concluded, that doesn't mean we should give up on making things better. "These results can form the starting point for deeper investigations by either the companies themselves or by regulatory bodies," the researchers wrote.
Until then, keep fighting for those $200,000 jobs, ladies — even if Google doesn't think you need to see them.