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Anupam Datta, an Indian American professor at Carnegie Mellon University. (CMU photo)

A recent study by an Indian American professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., shows significantly less women than men are shown in online ads promising high-salary jobs.

CMU associate professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering Anupam Datta developed an automated tool called AdFisher, which was used in a study published in the Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies.

The study used AdFisher to run 21 experiments on the “Ad Settings” page on Google. It revealed that the tool established that gender discrimination was real.

“This just came out of the blue,” Datta said of the gender discrimination finding in the CMU report.

The gender discrimination finding was part of a larger study of the operation of Google’s Ad Settings Web page.

To study the impact of gender, researchers created 1,000 simulated users — half designated male, half female — and had them visit 100 top employment sites.

AdFisher creates hundreds of simulated users, enabling researchers to run browser-based experiments in which they can identify various effects from changes in preferences or online behavior. AdFisher uses machine learning tools to analyze the results and perform rigorous statistical analyses.

When AdFisher then reviewed the ads that were shown to the simulated users, the site most strongly associated with the male profiles was a career coaching service for executive positions paying more than $200,000.

“Many important decisions about the ads we see are being made by online systems,” Datta said. “Oversight of these ‘black boxes’ is necessary to make sure they don’t compromise our values.”

The male users were shown the high-paying job ads about 1,800 times compared to the female users who saw the ads about 300 times, one researcher said.

Most female profiles were shown a generic job posting service and an auto dealer. There’s no evidence Google is doing anything illegal, however. Such discrepancies could come from the advertiser or Google’s system selecting to target males.

Datta is currently working with Microsoft Research to get an inside look at Microsoft’s ad ecosystem. He said he hopes other organizations will use tools such as AdFisher to monitor the behavior of their ad targeting software and that regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission will use the tool to help spot abuses.

In addition to the findings regarding gender discrimination, changes in ads were found according to browsing activity, which is not transparently explained in the Ad Settings page. When the simulated users visited Web pages associated with substance abuse, Google subsequently began sending them more ads for a drug rehabilitation center.

Datta said that it is likely because the change in ads was the consequence of remarketing. In remarketing, Google enables advertisers to reach users who have already visited their page.

Another experiment revealed that adjusting Ad Settings enables users to avoid some ads they may dislike.

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