Are Google's algorithms sexist?

Women are less likely to be shown the best job adverts while surfing the web, according to research.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2015

In a world of very human flaws and prejudices, one might have hoped that your search engine, cold and rational as it is, would be more enlightened. Sadly, it seems not. A study has indicated that Google shows better job adverts to users when it believes they are male.

Researchers at the International Computer Science Institute and Carnegie Mellon University mapped how Google ads on third-party sites differ based on the inferences Google draws on its users. It found that the users it had ‘convinced’ Google were women were much less likely to see two high-paying job adverts while browsing a news site than those profiled as men.

Before we get too shocked, a caveat. Google’s fiendishly complex algorithms remain a closely guarded mystery, meaning the scientists may not have been able to manipulate Google as well as they wanted. Ads on third party sites are also influenced by the preferences and data held by those actually running the ads, not just Google.

With that in mind, is it fair to say Google’s been sexist? Not intentionally. One can’t imagine there’s some misogynistic computer programmer in a cubicle deliberately trying to set back the cause of women’s rights. Rather, the algorithm appears to be unintentionally mimicking inequalities that already exist in society (because that’s so much better…).

Google shows what it thinks you’re most likely to click on. It bases that on a user profile it has made from your searches and clicks, which it references against ‘big data’ – what other people in your categories also click on. It’s not an unreasonable leap to assume that Google’s own data show women are less likely to click on that type of ad when shown it.

This could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps women don’t click as much on such job adverts because they perceive a bias against them. Perhaps the adverts in question were designed to appeal to men, intentionally or otherwise. Perhaps most women are just smart enough not to think their next career move will be determined by a flashing neon banner at the top of their news app.

Still, whatever the reason, this appears to be contributing to gender inequality by limiting opportunities for women. For a company with the motto ‘don't be evil’, that hardly looks good, especially when you consider that Google’s already been accused of racism this week.  

The firm’s Photos app, which uses visual recognition technology to tag pictures automatically, came under fire recently when it labelled a picture of two black people with the word ‘gorillas’.

‘This is 100% not okay,’ said Google executive Yonatan Zunger. ‘High on my list of bugs you "never" want to see happen.’

It’s doing a pretty good job of ticking off the contents of that list so far. Accusations of racism and sexism in one week? MT wonders if anyone’s developed an app to make the ground open up and swallow you whole. Could have come in handy in the PR department…

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