When is the last time you saw an online ad for a STEM career? If you’re a man, it might have been recently. If you’re a woman, you might not have seen the ads at all. MIT Sloan Professor Catherine Tucker and Anja Lambrecht, a London Business School Marketing Professor, conducted an experiment about the display of STEM career ads and found that the ads are disproportionately seen by men.
In the experiment, a gender-neutral ad for a STEM job ran on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other sites through Google’s ad display network. On each site, an algorithm optimized the ad so the most people would see it, which unfortunately resulted in men seeing the ad 20% more often than women. This is because women typically make more household purchasing decisions than men do, so it’s more expensive to get female views for ads in any category, not just STEM. A cost-minimizing algorithm will simply choose not to serve ads to women because of the higher price tag.
This algorithmic gender bias is especially problematic because women are already underrepresented in STEM careers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. While women hold 57% of professional occupations in the U.S., women only make up 26% of computing occupations, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. And, according to the Scientific American article covering Tucker’s research, women earn more than half of the PhDs in biological and biomedical sciences, yet they make up less than 30% of the applicants to tenure-track faculty positions in biology.
If women are not even seeing ads for STEM careers, it can set them back even further.
“The problem we identify would apply to any category of advertising product or service—for example, housing, insurance, shoes, health care, jobs in banking. It affects STEM ads … but the economics driving the phenomenon are global—female eyeballs are more expensive and a cost-minimizing algorithm will choose not to show ads to them,” Tucker says.
Tucker says an easy solution to the algorithm problem would be to run separate advertising campaigns for women and men, but it’s illegal to target jobs to one gender, according to federal discrimination regulations. So, ironically, antidiscrimination laws are the obstacle to the discrimination women face in seeing ads for STEM careers.
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Catherine Tucker teaches in several MIT Sloan Executive Education courses, including Marketing Innovation; Systematic Innovation of Products, Processes, and Services; and Platform Strategy: Building and Thriving in a Vibrant Ecosystem.