A big part of journalism is identifying questions that we encounter in everyday life and attempting to answer them, and this article is exactly that. As part of what I do for The City Voice, I have to maintain a number of different Google accounts for different aspects of the newspaper. None of these accounts are people, but simply represent the organization of the newspaper, though I still had to fill out the details form that every Google user must complete. At first I filled out the form to be consistent with my actual gender, but after completing this process a few times it occurred to me to register my gender as “rather not say” since it was just an organization account. After doing that, I did not notice anything different at first. Then I went to YouTube.
The image above is made of two screenshots I took upon going to YouTube.com in blank, experimental accounts with no prior search history. The top one is male, the bottom one female. The experiment was conducted in an incognito window so, at least according to Google, the browser had no prior data on either user. The only three data points available to the algorithm were names, City Voice Test 1 and 2 respectively, ages, both 17, born in March 2003, and, of course, genders, male and female. The ages of the two accounts were the same and the names were non-informative, so the only differing data point that those algorithmic results could be based on was gender. Based on that single difference, the male account received a vine compilation and a video from a Fortnite streamer while the female account received “study music to concentrate” and weight loss videos. Here are full versions of those two shots.
It balances out a little further down the page, but not much. When working online, many of us get used to just clicking “Agree” on user agreements and filling out forms without really thinking about the consequences. I know I do it. In this case, Google is actively using details like gender to modify your experiences on the internet. Here is what Google has to say about their policy on gender.
How Google uses your gender
We use your gender to make Google services more personal. When you specify your gender, you help us to:
Personalize messages and other text that refer to you. For example, people who can see your gender will see text like “Send him a message” or “In her circles.”
Provide more relevant, tailored content you might be interested in, like ads.
If you don’t specify your gender, we’ll refer to you in gender-neutral terms, like “Send them a message.”
So, Google is tailoring online content to match gender by making assumptions about your interests based on your chosen gender. However, while YouTube is a Google product and therefore runs on Google algorithms, most of the gender disparity you might experience on the internet is not actually caused by Google. The company provides a product to other large businesses called Google AdWords. The service allows advertisers to register ads with Google for display online. Most of the ads you see while exploring the internet likely come from Google AdWords.
One of the features of Google AdWords is that it allows businesses to target their ads to certain demographics, specifying that they want their ads to be shown to people of a certain age, geographic region, or gender. Google compares these settings to the profile they build for every user, estimating your personal information and interests based on your browsing history. Due to the regulations of the European privacy law known as GDPR, if advertisers have access to information users must have access to it as well. You can view your own Google ad profile at https://adssettings.google.com/.
It is worth noting that GRPS does not allow student accounts to be exposed to Google AdWords, so you will not see any targeted ads while signed into your school account. If Google is collecting data on us, GRPS does not allow us to see it. If you attempt to access ad settings while signed into a student account the page will be inaccessible.
To continue my experiment, I viewed the Google AdWords profiles of both of my fake accounts. I went straight from YouTube to the AdWords page and found that there was already ad information there, although not much. The results are available below.
Since this information is the same for both male and female accounts, it is unclear whether Google got all of this from a single visit to YouTube or if these tags are simply the default settings. I did attempt to test this but had created so many Google accounts during this experiment that my phone number has been banned from creating any more accounts. I also had a third account do all of these tests with their gender registered as “rather not say”, but it did not return any interesting results. As expected, each page was about a 50-50 mix of stereotypically male and female results. However, I did discover one more thing while exploring the Google AdWords page. If you click on any of the tags a window appears explaining why Google reached this conclusion. From this I discovered that the Google AdWords gender tag is not based on your declared gender, but on your search history.
It is worth noting that this does not hold true for all Google accounts. On some accounts, instead of “This is an estimation of your gender” the menu reads “You added this to your Google Account.” This is curious because both of the accounts for which the above screenshots appeared had registered genders. These differing screens each seem to appear on about 50% of Google accounts and I could not find any distinguishable patterns that might indicate why this occurs. If you know why this happens, please let us know in the comments.
This could, theoretically, lead to Google disagreeing with you about your own gender and assigning you a gender without your input. From this, I concluded that Google, and advertisers, have very distinct stereotypes about gender that they are reinforcing through various algorithms. For example, why even have illustrations in the male and female gender tags above? No additional information is conveyed by the illustration and the page would be equally informative without it. That illustration is only there because some developer at Google could not imagine a page on gender without those images. As often as Google says that “you are in control” over your own data, they are still modifying what they are showing you based on your gender and, worse, telling you what your gender is.
So what is the significance of all this? Targeted ads and YouTube videos might be annoying, and their basis on gender is disturbing, but so far none of it actually seems harmful. To find out how gender targeting is really affecting people, I turned to more academic research available on Google Scholar. Researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University International Computer Science Institute created an automated tool called AdFisher which is capable of creating thousands of Google accounts and simulating online behavior. They use these accounts to study ads and ad settings on a large scale, allowing them to discover statistically relevant patterns across huge sample sizes. Using this tool, the researchers studied a variety of factors, but I was only interested in their results on gender.
In the gender test, AdFisher had both male and female accounts visit websites where people look to find jobs online, such as the popular job-finding service Indeed. The bots then browsed the web and collected data from the job ads they received. Across the board, they found that the average salary presented to female candidates was lower than that presented to male candidates.
The researchers made the following statement about their results: “We set the agents’ gender to female or male on Google’s Ad Settings page. We then had both the female and male groups of agents visit webpages associated with employment. We established that Google used this gender information to select ads, as one might expect. The interesting result was how the ads differed between the groups: during this experiment, Google showed the simulated males ads from a certain career coaching agency that promised large salaries more frequently than the simulated females, a finding suggestive of discrimination.” You can read the full paper here.
These results are shocking but, unfortunately, it gets worse. The salary discrimination is based not on your declared gender, but on the AdWords gender tag that Google develops for you. Not only are advertisers limiting salary opportunities for women, Google can identify people as women whether they accept that gender or not, which means, quite literally, algorithms systematically disadvantage people for behaving “like women”.
Are you wondering what you can do to avoid this? The answer is not simple, since simply registering your gender as “custom” or “rather not say” would not work as Google could simply assign you a gender anyway. Based on what I have found, the only real way to escape this is to, for lack of a better phrase, troll the algorithms. Consider going online and Googling terms you would not normally search for and clicking on websites that you are not interested in or that you think are generally for the opposite gender, and doing your best to convince the system that you are not who it thinks you are whenever you can.
Just because the algorithms systematically disadvantage women at higher rates does not mean that male users should not troll the algorithms, too. Remember that YouTube only presented academic and study resources to the female account. Information is being hidden from all of us, no matter your gender. If we all make an effort to be a little less predictable online perhaps we can all have a better chance to break the box that Google puts us in.