ACLU: Job ads on Facebook illegally exclude women

Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor

Social media giant Facebook has come under scrutiny for their online advertisement targeting system after a charge was filed against the company by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the law firm Outten & Golden, and the labor union Communications Workers of America. The complaint asserts that Facebook’s advertising system enabled illegal discrimination against women.

The charge was filed on behalf of three women (residents of Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio) who were unable to view advertisements for employment on Facebook from 2017 to 2018, and was submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government agency that deals with discrimination in the workplace. According to the ACLU, the 10 employers who used gender targeting (including window replacement company Renewal by Andersen and the City of Greensboro Police Department in North Carolina) are in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Outten & Golden civil rights lawyer Peter Romer-Friedman says that the practice of limiting employment ads to a specific gender is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He believes Facebook is much more than an impartial intermediary. “They're profiting from thousands of ads that are being hidden from women,” Romer-Friedman told NPR.

Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, thinks modern ad targeting on Facebook is simply a continuation of long-running discrimination in recruitment. “The only difference between Facebook’s ad targeting practice and the sex-segregated classified ads of yore is that Facebook — unlike newspapers, which are distributed to the general public — can actually ensure that specific ads are only delivered to its male or female users,” she said in a post on the ACLU’s website, comparing the phenomenon to “Help wanted: Male” and “Help wanted: Female” ads in The New York Times in the 1960s that prevented women from attaining senior positions.

What should Facebook do to prevent employers from discriminating by gender in their ads? Stop allowing advertisers to target specific genders, ethnicities, or ages on their website, Sherwin recommends. Currently, anyone who is willing to pay for space on Facebook’s massive advertising platform can simply check a box to use the company’s inferred user profiles to limit their content to certain groups. While these capabilities have increased ad profits and click-through rates, they have been controversial since introduction and have put the company in hot water before.

In Aug. 2018, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development filed an administrative complaint against Facebook alleging that its advertising tools allow real estate owners to engage in housing discrimination, a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Earlier that month, the company announced that they were removing over 5,000 targeting options to “prevent misuse” of their platform after they were subject to an exhaustive investigation into discrimination by King County, Washington.

Romer-Friedman thinks Facebook hasn’t yet acted on the charge of gender discrimination because it is too valuable of a revenue source for executives to consider preventing it. “We know now that this is a leadership problem, from the top down. This is not a technical problem. They could solve this in an afternoon,” he said.

While the lawyers behind the charge are adamant that Facebook should change their ways, the company isn’t bowing to outside pressure. In a statement, spokesperson Joe Osborne insisted that “there is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies.”

Similarly, the companies cited in the complaint deny allegations of gender targeting in their ads. Adam May, a spokesperson for Renewal by Andersen, refused to comment on specifics but told NPR, “We are an equal opportunity employer, and we are proud of the diversity of our workforce,” adding that the primary focus for Renewal by Andersen is to “build a talented and dedicated team, regardless of who those folks might be.”

Public information officer Ron Glenn made similar remarks in defense of the Greensboro Police Department. “We are committed to seeking and hiring an inclusive and diverse workforce. We adhere to our city's policy of diversity and inclusion,” he said, clarifying that “Facebook is one channel of an extensive recruiting strategy for the Greensboro Police Department.”

Ultimately, it is in the hands of the EEOC to decide whether to move forward with the charge. According to the ACLU, millions of women were potentially denied the opportunity to view advertisements for employments. Romer-Friedman is confident that this violation is significant enough for the EEOC to act. He said, “The ten [employers] we identified today in the charges are, we think, a sample of the much larger numbers of employers that have done this.” Even if the federal government doesn’t file a lawsuit, the ACLU likely will.