CAN ALGORITHMS BE SEXIST? By Desireé Duffy

11 Aug 2015 12:00 PM | Anonymous

By Desireé Duffy, AWM SoCal Co-President

Source: ITCFirm.com

A recent report from Carnegie Mellon University that compared results of nearly identical job-seeking profiles rattled our perception of gender bias online. After all, we’d all like to think that an algorithm put in place by Google, the world’s largest search engine and creators of those adorable Google Doodles featuring inspiring women like Marie Curie and Sally Ride, couldn’t display gender-bias.

Could we be wrong about our lovable Google?

The Carnegie Mellon researchers built a tool that tracks how user-behavior on Google affects the ads shown to that user. Numerous fake accounts with only one differentiating factor—whether they were male or female—were created. The results: Google displayed high-paying, upper-level jobs to the set identified as “male” 1,852 times, and 318 times to the set identified as “female”, in display ads.

If this were an anomaly maybe we could be forgiving. After all, even algorithms can make mistakes, right? Google has come under scrutiny before. A search for the term “CEO” in “Images” shows row after row of men—mostly white men at that. During a search conducted at the time of this article’s writing, I counted to 28 before I saw a female image result.

What is Google’s top female result for “CEO”?

Well, it’s a Barbie Doll in a power suit. The image is pulled from an article about how the CEO Barbie image is the first result in a search for the term “CEO” and how it is actually from an old Onion article that jabs at corporate misogyny. (I know, I got woozy trying to follow that, too. Just Google “CEO” and click the Barbie image to see what I mean.)

The first real woman CEO result is that of General Motors’ Mary Barra, coming in at number 42. Then we go all the way to number 63 to find Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. That image is pulled from a Mashable article about her having a baby and becoming a new mom. Hm.


After hearing about the Carnegie Mellon research, feminist horror writer and producer, Justina Walford from Wildworks Productions, decided to do a little A/B testing herself. She switched her gender to male on Facebook to see what would happen.

“The most striking result of me changing from female to male on Facebook, is the fact that the cheap dresses stopped following me. As a woman, I’m bombarded with ads for fashion, dresses, and bathing suits,” says Walford. “However as a guy, I get ads for higher-end men’s clothing like Bonobos and Indochino, as well as credit cards and travel. The weirdest thing I noticed though, were how many fewer ads there are on Facebook for the fellas. In many cases I have to click around to even find an ad while posing as a man.”

Walford’s impromptu test lead her to a useful revelation all women might find handy:

“I discovered a quick, easy way to get all those cheap dresses to stop following me on Facebook—simply become a dude!” she says.


So does this mean algorithms can be sexist?

Understanding what an algorithm is may shed more light on the subject. Simply stated, an algorithm is a set of instructions or rules to follow which produce a result or answer. So the question really is, is the person who programmed the Google algorithm sexist, or did the algorithm adapt to what people’s habits were and deliver a sobering result based on what women and men respond to?

In other words, do women click less on high-level ads than men, causing the algorithm to be responsive to the number of times it shows such ads to women?

Or maybe the answer is a third option, one that points to the advertisers of the ads. When selecting criteria for display ads, marketers are given the option of which gender they want to target.

Could the ads have been set up to be shown to men more than women?

I went to the experts to get more clarity. Andrea Faville from Google told me, “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. 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.”

Going back to the research done by Carnegie Mellon, it is important to note their study is not actually about Google’s search results or algorithm. Since they were looking at display ads, it is the advertisers who determine what audiences their specific display ads are shown to—so the party placing the ad is the one potentially choosing which gender sees it.

LaFern Cusack is the Immediate Past President of the Alliance for Women in Media, SoCal and a radio talk show host. I asked her opinion about people and companies placing ads that target men over women.

“Placing ads for high-level positions and intentionally targeting men over women is not acceptable. This is why organizations like the Alliance for Women in Media need to keep fighting the fight. Women and people of every gender should be presented with the same opportunities in order to truly have the same opportunity. That’s what makes businesses, cultures, and society successful. To alienate people based on their sex is proof that there is still a long way to go to ensuring equality,” says Cusack.


So what do the numbers say?

According to a CNNMoney analysis, only 14.2% of the top-five leadership roles in S&P 500 companies are held by women. Worse yet, at the very top, only 24 CEOs are female.

It is my opinion that corporations, HR professionals, and digital marketers need to be aware of potential gender bias when placing online ads. Not doing so is not only discriminatory, (and I honestly question the legality of it) but it perpetuates outdated stereotypes that have no place in today’s society.

Adding diversity to the upper levels of a company creates a positive, more inclusive corporate climate. Young women today need to be able to envision themselves in leadership roles in order to one day achieve them. A good way for that to happen, is if instead of cheap dresses, images of equality and empowerment follow them online.


Desireé Duffy is the Vice President of Operations for ITC, an award-winning digital marketing agency in Los Angeles. She is also the co-president of the Alliance for Women in Media in Southern California. She sits on the Board of Advisors for the Women in Entertainment and Technology Summit, which is a part of Digital Hollywood, and is also on the board of directors for the L.E.A.F. and Lifeboat Foundations.

Twitter: @Desiree_Duffy
LinkedIn: 
www.linkedin.com/in/desireeduffy
Web: 
www.ITCFirm.com and www.AWMSoCal.org



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