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“No Women Need Apply”: ACLU takes on Facebook over discrimination in targeted job ads

Are you a woman in a male-dominated field? Did you know that Facebook’s advertising algorithms are making it harder for you to find a job?

Today, the ACLU, the private law firm Outten & Golden LLP, and the Communications Workers of America filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Facebook and 10 employers for unlawfully discriminating on the basis of gender. Filed on behalf of two female workers, the Communications Workers of America (an international union representing over 700,000 workers), and a class of millions of women, the complaint alleges that Facebook and the named employers denied women access to job ads on the basis of their gender by targeting job advertisements to male Facebook users.

Getting one’s foot in the door is already difficult for women working in male-dominated fields like software development, law enforcement, and construction. Unfortunately, Facebook’s advertising algorithms are making it more difficult for women to find work in these fields. It’s a textbook case of how big data and automation can exacerbate existing inequalities, if we aren’t careful. It also violates federal law.

Employers facing allegations of gender-based discrimination alongside Facebook include:

  • Abas USA, a global software developer
  • Defenders, a leading installer of home security systems
  • Nebraska Furniture Mart, a major retailer of home furniture
  • City of Greensboro, NC Police Department
  • Need Work Today, an employment agency that procures workers for farm, construction, trucking and aviation employers
  • Renewal by Andersen LLC, one of the largest window replacement and installation companies in America
  • Rice Tire, a tire retailer and provider of auto repair services with locations throughout Maryland and Virginia
  • JK Moving Services, the largest independent moving company in America
  • Enhanced Roofing & Modeling, a roofing and remodeling company based in the Washington, D.C. metro area
  • Xenith, an athletics equipment manufacturer and retailer

The ACLU complaint states that these employers purchased targeted ads from Facebook to publish job advertisements the social media giant ensured would be shown exclusively to users who identify as male. Targeting job ads by sex is unlawful under federal, state, and local civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the government can forbid job advertising that discriminates based on sex. 

Today’s complaint shows that unlawful, outdated, discriminatory practices are being perpetuated by Facebook’s ad targeting regime, despite the 1973 ruling. “Sex segregated job advertising has historically been used to shut women out of well-paying jobs and economic opportunities,” said Galen Sherwin, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “We can’t let gender-based ad targeting online give new life to a form of discrimination that should have been eradicated long ago.”

In essence, Facebook is helping employers post “Help Wanted – Men Only” ads—ads that were ruled unconstitutional in 1973.

Thankfully, women workers and the ACLU are fighting back. “Despite the progress we have made, stereotypes and biases clearly still influence corporate hiring strategies. Shame on these employers for targeting ads based on gender, and shame on Facebook for facilitating this practice,” said Sara Steffens, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communications Workers of America.

According to reports, 66 percent of companies use Facebook for recruiting and 26 percent of job seekers use social media as their primary tool for job searching. If discriminatory ad targeting on social media platforms continues unchecked, Facebook and platforms like it will have accomplished a depressing feat: the expertly tailored use of 21st century tools to facilitate mid-20th century discrimination.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Facebook has come under fire for facilitating illegal discrimination. In recent years, the company has allowed advertisers to engage in prohibited discrimination based on protected categories like race, national origin, age, and now gender. This isn’t the first time the ACLU has pushed back against Facebook’s discriminatory ad targeting. But today’s complaint gives the EEOC an opportunity to send a clear message, to both Facebook and employers, that using technology to conceal, obscure, or perpetuate unlawful and discriminatory practices will not be tolerated. Let’s hope this time Facebook gets it, and overhauls its advertising system to keep discriminatory ad targeting out, once and for all.

This blog post was co-authored by ACLU of Massachusetts intern Siri Nelson and Kade Crockford.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.