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Is Facebook’s Advertising Algorithm Illegally Perpetuating Gender Discrimination?

On Behalf of | Oct 5, 2021 | Gender Discrimination

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) evaluated Facebook’s advertising platform, examining whether a user’s gender influenced their likelihood of seeing certain job postings on the social media site. USC’s findings suggest that the algorithm’s choices mirror existing gender bias, making it increasingly difficult for women to break into predominantly male industries.

A Closer Look at the Research

USC researchers ran a series of Facebook ads for real job postings. They compared postings for two companies that had open jobs requiring relatively equal skills; however, one company’s workforce was predominantly male and the other company’s workforce was predominantly female. Researchers found that Facebook showed more women ads for the predominantly female company and more men ads for the predominantly male company, furthering each company’s unbalanced gender breakdown.

In 2019, researchers ran a separate study to discover how Facebook would show ads whose creators do not specify any targeting information (such as gender, age, or other demographics.) This allows Facebook’s algorithm to act on its own accord, showing the ad to its desired set of viewers. The same pattern of gender bias appeared in these un-targeted ads. In this situation, the researchers ran job ads for a Dominos driver position (the majority of which are men) and an Instacart driver position (the majority of which are women). The Facebook algorithm showed the Dominos ad to more men, and the Instacart ad to more women.

This same experiment was later conducted with other roles, such as software engineering and sales associate positions. Each time, the researchers saw the same pattern – Facebook’s algorithm recreated and reinforced existing gender disparities on its platform.

Global Witness, a UK-based nonprofit, ran a similar study of Facebook’s advertising platform and came to the same conclusion as the USC researchers. Within their results of non-targeted ads:

  • A mechanic ad was shown to men 96 percent of the time
  • A preschool nurse ad was shown to women 95 percent of the time
  • An airplane pilot ad was shown to men 75 percent of the time
  • A psychologist ad was shown to women 77 percent of the time

These results suggest that Facebook’s algorithm could violate gender antidiscrimination laws, favoring one gender over another and narrowing each gender’s career opportunities in the process.

Facebook and its History with Discrimination Allegations

Facebook denies the allegations of gender-based discrimination and states that they stand against all forms of discrimination. The company contends that its algorithm was designed to show ads to those who are most likely to be interested in and to interact with the content. However, this is not the first time that their algorithm has come under fire. Facebook’s ad platform has also been accused of perpetuating housing discrimination, age discrimination, and racial discrimination.

While Facebook may not be actively attempting to discriminate against any group, research results suggest that their algorithm is still not fairly displaying ads diversely. More work needs to be done on Facebook’s ad delivery system to stop any intentional and unintentional bias, to better equalize opportunities across all of the social media platform’s user base.


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