Online Ads for High-Paying Jobs Are Targeting Men More Than Women

New study uncovers gender bias

A report claims some online advertising may be showing a bias against women by serving ads for high-paying jobs disproportionately to men.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University said their study looking at online ads served through Google's DoubleClick ad network appeared to show discrimination and a lack of transparency.

In the study, the researchers simulated consumer profiles and set them loose online to visit employment websites and behave like job seekers would—500 of the user profiles were male, and 500 were female. After the job-search activity, the simulated users were sent to top websites where the ads were recorded. An ad for high-paid executives was served 1,816 times to men and just 311 times to women. 

"We found small instances where there was discrimination and gender-based discrimination in job ads," said Anupam Datta, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon.

Datta pointed out that the study could not determine how the targeting occurred or if it was even intentional. The researchers said they were merely pointing out the potential for this type of bias and want to study it more. Datta said they may even do further research with help from Google rival Microsoft.

There are a number of factors that determine which ads are delivered in an auction-based system, and the researchers noted that advertisers could have set the targets based on gender. 

The issue of bias and discrimination in ad targeting isn't new, however. One study claimed black Web users were disproportionately served ads for legal services.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers also were alarmed by ads that seemed to retarget users based on health concerns. In another test, they sent simulated users to sites related to substance abuse and found instances where ads for rehab centers showed up.

It was an apparent retargeting based on visits to certain websites but might not have had any connection to profiles Google or advertisers had on the users. (Google's rules forbid serving ads based on health information.)

"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," the company said in a statement today. "We provide transparency to users with 'Why This Ad' notices and Ad Settings as well as the ability to opt out of interest-based ads."

The researchers said they chose to look at Google's ad network simply because it was the largest and has the highest impact in the industry. Datta has worked with Microsoft in the past on privacy research but said the company had no connection to the study.

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