By Erin Flaherty
If you’re an avid Facebook user, you’ve most definitely been exposed to Facebook’s advertisements. Maybe you’ve even noticed that many product advertisements that you’ve received are things you would consider buying. This is made possible by ad targeting, a system available to advertisers on Facebook that allows them to tailor their advertisements to people who meet certain demographic requirements. This may seem unproblematic until you consider advertisements that aren’t product placements, like job postings. The question that many are asking is: is it legal to target job-recruitment advertisements at specific groups?
On Facebook, advertisers have the ability to target advertisements to a certain demographic based on factors like location and other information included in your profile. Under said “other information” lies gender, meaning that through Facebook's ad system, advertisers can choose what gender will view their advertisements. This is where controversy surrounding job-ad targeting stems from: is it just or even legal to recruit based on gender?
Galen Sherwin, an ACLU lawyer, provides an answer to this question; she argues that this practice is indeed illegal. She brings up precedents, such as when the Supreme Court outlawed the use of phrases such as “Help wanted - men” in advertising for employment.. Sherwin argues that this policy should still apply to online advertising, claiming that “ the ads themselves are illegal, it’s been established for five decades.”
On the other hand, Facebook insists that they aren’t doing anything wrong, citing the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects media and internet companies from liability for content created by third parties. However, since Facebook created the ad-targeting technology, many argue that this would not be considered third-party content. Whether Facebook can be held liable for allowing companies to use ad targeting is still up in the air.
Although Facebook has recently taken away the ability for advertisers to target based on race, religion and national origin, advertisers still retain the ability to target based on gender, and Facebook has ignored most reports it has received on the issue. In fact, they still promote the use of gender specification in job-ad targeting, saying in a recent ad campaign that you can “target the people you want to reach” and listing gender as one of the possible attributes.
In late September, ACLU filed a lawsuit against Facebook, claiming that they are violating laws that “prohibit employers and employment agencies from engaging in sex discrimination (including discrimination based on gender identity) in employment advertising, recruitment, and hiring, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” In their lawsuit, they discuss the impact of social media on the hiring world, stating that “social media has become a primary means for big and small employers to identify, recruit, and hire workers, particularly through the use of targeted ads.” They specifically focus on the unfair advantage that this ad-targeting poses on women, mentioning several large corporations, like Uber, who specifically target males in their recruitment ads. Studies have shown that over 95% of Uber ads on Facebook are targeted at men.
However, a study done by Propublica over the past year shows that ad-targeting has been placing both men and women at a disadvantage in certain fields, as both are commonly targeted with ads that fit classic gender stereotypes. In their study, they found that women received job-ads about positions like civil rights investigator, counseling service provider and nursing jobs. Men, on the other hand, received employment ads about truck driving, trooper and software jobs.
In their lawsuit, ACLU also brings up the disadvantage that those who don’t identify as male or female are being placed at. When creating a Facebook account, you are required to select male or female as your gender. Afterwards, you can go into your profile settings and adjust this to “gender fluid” and select a pronoun that you would like to be used for instances like birthday posts. When selecting neutral pronouns, a birthday post notification would read “Wish them a happy birthday” instead of “Wish him” or “Wish her.” Those who select neutral pronouns and gender fluid don’t fall into either category of male or female under Facebook’s system, so when advertisers choose to target ads based on gender, these people will not see these ads at all.
Job ad-targeting isn’t seen by all as a negative. Some argue that one of the benefits of targeting job-ads based on gender is the ability it has to balance out imbalances in fields between men and women. For example, both T-Mobile and Boeing have used Facebook’s system to target engineering job ads at women. This comes off as a disadvantage if you subscribe to the idea that affirmative action is an unfair process. Those who support affirmative action would see this as a positive since it is a method for companies to even out gender imbalances.
When asked about the issue, Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said, “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. We look forward to defending our practices once we have an opportunity to review the complaint.” The idea of giving unequal opportunities to women is something that would go against the goals and values that Facebook states to have, as expressed by their 2018 diversity report where they boast that “the number of women at Facebook has increased 5X over the last five years.” Facebook’s reaction to this controversy will reflect what their true values are, and whether or not they believe they should be held accountable for the technology that they’ve created.