Guest Opinion from American Civil Liberties Union

How Facebook is giving sex discrimination in employment ads a new life

By Galen Sherwin
(edited for length)

In 1967, the newly formed National Organization for Women staged a weeklong protest of The New York Times and other newspapers. Their demonstration targeted the long-standing practice of printing classified listings in two separate columns: “Help wanted: Male” and “Help wanted: Female,” which of course resulted in the exclusion of women from high-paying jobs and industries. As a result of NOW’s advocacy campaign, the Equal Em-ployment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting race and sex discrimination in employment, finally made clear that limiting job postings to one sex was unlawful. Sex-segregated classified ads subsequently became a thing of the past.

Or so we thought.

Today, five decades later, sex-segregated job listings are roaring back to life. Enabled by social media platforms like Facebook, advertisers are increasingly using personal data to direct their ads — including for jobs — to individual users based on characteristics such as sex, race, and age, thus excluding users outside of the selected groups.

We can’t let this archaic form of discrimination continue to take hold. That’s why on Tuesday, the ACLU, along with the Communications Workers of America and the employment law firm Outten & Golden LLP, filed charges with the EEOC against Facebook and 10 companies that targeted ads for jobs in male-dominated fields to younger male Facebook users only, excluding all women and non-binary individuals as well as older males. The case is brought on behalf of three job seekers and the Communications Workers of America on behalf of a proposed class of millions of job applicants. It alleges that these job advertising practices violate civil rights laws.

These laws explicitly prohibit publication of segregated ads, or ads that express a preference for sex or age. Yet that’s exactly what has happened. Facebook requires users to identify their sex in the binary categories of male or female in order to even open an account. Though they can later change it and select from a few dozen options to describe their gender identity, Facebook still requires users to choose gendered pronouns (male, female, or neutral), which it then offers to advertisers for purposes of gender-based ad targeting. Facebook delivers the ad accordingly, including a notice that the user is seeing the ad because of their sex.

The only difference between Facebook’s ad targeting practice and the sex-segregated classified ads of yore is that Facebook – unlike newspapers, which go to the general public – can actually ensure that specific ads are only delivered to its male or female (or young/old) users, according to the advertisers’ selection.

Facebook also offers advertisers the ability to use what it calls “Lookalike Targeting,” which allows  targeting customers with traits similar to those of their customer base. To understand why this is problematic in the employment context, consider a company with an all-white workforce, which decided to recruit and hire only applicants that “look like” their current workforce. Such a hiring strategy would plainly perpetuate the exclusion of workers of color, violating laws, including Title VII, that prohibit employment practices that have a discriminatory effect. The rules should be no different for online postings, especially as social media becomes an increasingly dominant force in job seeking and recruitment.

While online targeting of other types of ads may seem relatively benign, or even beneficial, our legal action shows this power can also be used to exclude marginalized groups from even learning about jobs and other opportunities. It is not a coincidence that the jobs highlighted in each of the ads the ACLU has challenged were for positions in fields such as tire salesperson, mechanic, truck driver, technician – well-paid, blue-collar fields from which women have traditionally been excluded.

When employers in male-dominated fields advertise their jobs only to men, it prevents women from breaking into those fields. What’s more, clicking on the Facebook ads brought viewers to a page listing numerous other job opportunities at these companies for which job seekers might be qualified. Because no women saw either the original job posts or the additional ones, females were shut out of all these iooirtunities. Our data profiles should not determine what information is available to us when it comes to economic opportunities.

It’s important to note that online platforms like Facebook are generally not liable for content published by others — this principle is critical to keeping the internet running. But in this case, Facebook is doing much more than that. It has built the architecture for this discriminatory marketing framework, enabled and encouraged advertisers to use it, and delivered the gender-based ads according to employers’ sex-based preferences. It also essentially acts as a recruiter connecting employers with prospective employees. In this context, it should be legally accountable for both creating and delivering these discriminatory ad campaigns.

Facebook must change its platform to prevent advertisers from exploiting user data for discriminatory purposes and ensure once and for all that all users, regardless of gender, race, age, or other protected status, are given a fair shake. Nothing less is required if we are to ensure that progress toward gender equality is carried forward into the digital age.

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