Facebook's job ads have a gender bias problem

Which ads users see depends on which gender they identify with, or which Facebook thinks they do.

Young people waiting for job interview indoors

Researchers have sounded the alarm on gender bias in Facebook's ad system for job listings. University of Southern California researchers report that Facebook pushed ads for jobs to men and women with remarkably different frequency depending on the roles in question.

The issue is so disproportionate that researchers say it goes "beyond what can be legally justified." One of the examples shared by the authors of the study note the difference between Instacart and Domino's Pizza delivery jobs. Facebook targeted a female-majority demographic with the Instacart ad while the Domino's Pizza ad went to the majority male crowd.

USC researchers added that Instacart's drivers are mostly female while Domino's Pizza deliverers tend to be male. This suggests the results may be based on historical data rather than deliberate bias... but it’s a problem either way, especially as it appears Facebook’s know about it for some time.

The paper notes that Facebook's ad system is likely violating the United States anti-discrimination laws. “We do not find such skew on LinkedIn,” the paper states. “[...] At the same time, the challenges we encounter [within Facebook] lead us to suggest changes that ad platforms could make (or that should be mandated of them) to make external auditing of their performance in societally impactful areas easier.”

Nvidia versus Netflix — Researchers shared another example in which Facebook's ad ecosystem targeted women with ads about a Netflix tech job, a company that The Wall Street Journal notes has a “relatively high level of female employment for the tech industry.” A job at Nvidia, where there's a higher number of male employees, was shown to men more often.

Accusations of discriminatory ads have hounded Facebook for a long time. In 2019, according to The Washington Post, Facebook agreed to overhaul its ad system that was hit with accusations of giving landlords and lenders the power to discriminate and exclude specific demographics... like those who spoke Spanish or had an interest in mopeds or burkas. Clearly, the work remains to be done even several years later.

In response to the findings by the researchers, Reuters reports Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said that social network has "many signals to try and serve people ads they will be most interested in, but we understand the concerns raised in the report." In other words, forgiveness not permission, which is Facebook’s usual M.O.

But perhaps it should reassess those signals in light of this noise. Otherwise it can expect more of it.