Is Facebook’s advertising algorithm sexist? That’s what Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree is claiming after a job advertisement was rejected because of the use of the term “equal pay” in a job announcement run on November 5, 2018. The ad, which features two WillowTree employees – including a young woman in hijab – was rejected on the grounds that WillowTree’s Facebook page wasn’t authorized to run sponsored content “related to politics and issues of national importance.” According to Facebook, equal pay is an issue related to their list of high-level topics defined by their ad policy. The only way to run advertisements on those topics is to become a verified Facebook page, and the intention behind the policy was to rebuild trust. Facebook instituted this practice to increase transparency, particularly around political or advocacy matters, as a first step in restoring trust in the social media giant.
But the problem is that WillowTree’s ad wasn’t political at all. It was intentionally designed to attract women software engineers to open jobs at the company.
I reached out to Dengel, as well as Rob Leathern, Director of Product at Facebook and Rob Goldman, Vice President of Advertising at Facebook, via Twitter. According to Goldman’s tweet, one justification for the ad rejection was due to delay in verifying WillowTree’s Facebook page. “ We require verification to help prevent against foreign interference and provide more transparency,” Goldman said. That verification would allow WillowTree to run ads on issues related to the issue list mentioned previously. Goldman also claimed that Facebook shares a commitment to pay equity.
Leathern claims, via Twitter, that this isn’t technically a rejection of the ad but a delay due to the process of getting authorized, per that same advertising policy. But if it’s just a technical error, why is the ad rejection still a big deal to Dengel and others who were vocal about it on Twitter? Because of the broad and prohibitive reach that the advertising policy has on all sorts of non-political content, including simple ads made by tech media companies like BoingBoing.
The other issue is that the rejection of WillowTree’s job ad stands in stark contrast to job ads approved by Facebook that solely targeted men. Some of those ads were sexist enough that the ACLU and others filed a discrimination suit over the targeting of those ads. In that case, the lawsuit claims that constraints put on who can view the ad constitute discrimination based on gender. The situation with WillowTree differs because the rejection was based on the ad’s copy, not who the ad targeted.
Dengel can appreciate the difficulty of what Facebook is trying to do. Via email, he told me that the biggest thing that Facebook needs to consider is to take a hard look at the practices that design their algorithms as well as their approval processes. “I sympathize that they are dealing with very large numbers of ads and there are bad actors trying to game the system,” he said. But Dengel also pointed out that Facebook has to more actively express the corporate responsibility that comes with being the largest media company in the world. “I believe they need to invest in people and/or algorithms that don’t reject ads that any human with common sense would instantly see are OK and indeed have a positive message,” Dengel mentioned.
Dengel’s company is one of many companies actively promoting their organization’s equal pay policies and salary transparency as a form of talent recruitment, particularly targeting women. Some discussions of equal pay sometimes include the idea that equal pay policies harm men and their earning potential. But that isn’t the case at WillowTree. Dengel said that he has not received any negative feedback from his staff due to WillowTree’s strong commitment to equal pay. “Everyone has been super supportive,” Dengel said. In fact, he suspects that more men support rather than reject equal pay policies. “I think it’s a myth that men feel threatened by equal pay… I have never heard a single complaint or push back. Everyone is about growing the team as fast as we can, with the best people we can find,” he said.
Despite the delay in with the Facebook ad, Dengel is pressing forward. WillowTree hasn’t yet achieved gender parity on their staff of 300, but they remain committed to the value that equal pay policies can create maximum value. “We believe that if we can attract a diverse team across a multitude of dimensions (gender identity, race, sexual orientation to name a few), we will have a long-term competitive advantage. The key is retaining these teams in an inclusive workplace, and a foundational piece of inclusion is pay equality,” Dengel said. As reported previously by Karsten Strauss, research backs Dengle’s viewpoint up. A 2015 report from McKinsey found that gender-diverse companies are as much as 21% more likely to experience above-average profits. Culturally or ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to achieve better profits.
While it is fairly clear that both Facebook and many other companies support closing the gender pay gap, the impact of Facebook’s policies isn’t functionally helping close the gap. Companies like WillowTree need to be able to access and use Facebook to reach those job applicants. That brings us back to the original problem: being able to run the job advertisements.