Want to Get a Higher-Paying Job? Change Your Google Ad Settings

A new study shows that online ads for careers with larger salaries more frequently targeted men than women.

(Photo: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)

Jul 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Take a look at the ads populating your browser right now. Each one is targeted to users based on factors such as age, gender, location, and Web history—most of which users can select via Google's ad settings for the purpose of transparency.

It's no secret that Google collects and sells massive amounts of data from millions of users across the Internet, but the way advertisers are choosing to use that data could be leaving women at a severe disadvantage.

When researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the International Computer Science Institute built an automated tool to examine the interaction between user behaviors, Google's ads, and ad settings, they found that Google displayed ads for higher-paying jobs more frequently to men than to women. Researchers say the recent study is the first to provide significant evidence of potential discrimination in online advertising using information that is publicly available. The ratio of ads targeted to men versus women and by which companies was not specified, and researchers say the findings aren't clear violations of Google's privacy policy.

"Advertisers can choose to target the audience they want to reach, and we have policies that guide the type of interest-based ads that are allowed," Google said in a statement issued to the press. "We provide transparency to users with 'Why This Ad' notices and ad settings, as well as the ability to opt out of interest-based ads."

RELATED: In Some States, Women Will Earn Less Than Men for a Century to Come

The study's conclusion was based on an online tool called AdFisher, which showed that changing a gender setting from male to female influenced the ads that appeared on employment-related websites during May 2014. Ads from one career agency, for example, promoted jobs with higher salaries specifically to Internet users who identified as male. In 2014, women accounted for 46.8 percent of the labor force, but the unemployment rates were roughly equal between the sexes, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As the researchers point out, gender settings also have a somewhat practical—if not stereotypical—use: Ads for lingerie and bikinis can be targeted to women as opposed to men, for example. One obvious takeaway from the study: Job-seeking women looking to achieve equal pay might consider changing the gender on their ad settings.

So, Why Should You Care? If closing the gender pay gap were as simple as clicking a button online, women on average wouldn't still be earning just 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, with even wider disparities between the salaries of black and Hispanic women compared with white men. Still, the findings of the study point to the bigger reason why it's so tough to solve the pay gap between men and women: It's complicated. Gender biases manifest in many ways, and not all are immediately visible or tangible.

Some employers have taken it upon themselves to tackle the wage gap, while others have put the onus on women to ensure equal pay. Reddit, whose interim CEO, Ellen Pao, sued one of Silicon Valley's largest venture-capital firms for sex discrimination, have attempted to even the playing field by banning salary negotiations altogether. The reasoning: Women are less likely than men to negotiate a higher-paying salary. The tech company Salesforce sought to do its part by reviewing employee salaries and giving some women raises comparable to men's salaries. Meanwhile, career coaching organizations like Levo offer courses and workshops aimed at teaching women the art of negotiation.

Many of these initiatives are helping to combat the wage gap—or at least raise awareness about it—but it's not as easy to track the consequences of sneaky, subtle practices like gender-targeted ads.