Search engines and social media sites gobble up information about users so that they can offer companies the ability to pick and choose whom they want to see their ads. However, the process isn’t always as straightforward as saying that someone searched for cat treats, so the system will show them ads for pet supplies. In some cases, data about a person is inferred based on their surfing habits, and some of the inferences from Google may be sexist.
Technology Review reports that research done by Carnegie Mellon University and the International Computer Science Institute indicates that Google may be making some pretty serious assumptions about users based on their gender. A tool called AdFisher was developed to track how ads were targeted to fake users based on their surfing habits, and fake male users were more likely to see a set of ads for executive positions with high salaries than fake female users.
Now, I’ve argued that women tend to not go into STEM fields because they’re not interested (and studies back me up). Similar explanations have been proffered that women do not end up in high-paying or management positions as often because they are less focused on their career. Even if that’s true, I’m pretty sure that’s up to the individual job seeker to decide, not a Google algorithm.
The AdFisher tool works by having web browsers follow a pre-set trail that allows an ad server to create a profile for the imaginary user. From there, the tool monitors what ads end up being shown to the fake user on a news website that Google serves ads to. AdFisher looks for anomalies, such as ads that show up for men but not women or vise versa.
However, researchers note that:
What exactly caused those specific patterns is unclear, because Google’s ad-serving system is very complex. Google uses its data to target ads but ad buyers can make some decisions about demographics of interest and can also use their own data sources on people’s online activity to do additional targeting for certain kinds of ads.
In other words, the evidence looks a lot like women aren’t being shown ads because of the assumptions of Google’s algorithms, but it’s not 100% certain. Furthermore, you can’t even necessarily pin the sexism entirely on Google, even if you could provide conclusive evidence, because companies serving ads can pick and choose who they’d like to show ads to.
Advertisers that were smart could also be sure to target men without having to select a gender to show ads to. All companies would have to do is something along the lines of selecting to show their ads to people who’d shopped for a tie or men’s underwear and it would pretty much eliminate most women without being incredibly obvious about doing so.
Whatever the cause, it does look like something hinky is going on, and researchers are interested in getting to the bottom of it.