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‘Wait, only showing job adverts to men is sexism?’ asks Facebook.  

The social network is being sued after allowing employers to exclude women from seeing their job adverts.

What it means: A lot of economists are obsessed with something called economic efficiency, which basically means that every resource we have is given to the person or group who get the most ‘utility’ from it. (For some reason, ‘utility’ is the word economists picked to mean ‘pleasure’. We have no idea why.) Economic efficiency gets a lot of criticism because it focuses on wants rather than their needs. That means it can end up supporting things like food going to the richest rather than the hungriest or, in this case, sexist job adverts.  

Facebook advertisements sort users into over 5,000 categories from which businesses can pick only those that are relevant to whatever they’re advertising. So a cat food advert can be shown just to cat owners, a running event just to runners, and so on. (That’s the economic efficiency bit).

But people are also using Facebook’s targeted advertising to sort people by their own prejudices. Landlords used it to stop ethnic minorities seeing their properties. And now some businesses are using it to stop women from seeing (and therefore applying for) job openings in their company. Facebook, which encourages advertisers to select their preferred gender when posting an ad, is being sued for discrimination by a team of American civil rights charities, unions, companies and women.

The social network doesn’t think it’s done anything wrong. According to the Financial Times, Facebook says targeted advertising helps small businesses, which “can only afford to advertise to a niche audience” and need to avoid “irrelevant group[s]”.

Most employers say want to hire the person who is the most productive - which here means the person who creates the most output (i.e. does the most work) per input (i.e. their wage and other benefits). Excluding half the world’s population from a job role would only be economically efficient if there was categoric proof that all women are less productive than all men, which there is not.

Of course, even hiring managers who don’t exclude all women from seeing their job postings tend to be influenced more by social norms and prejudices than a rational calculation of who would be the most productive, which is why you’re more likely to get a powerful job if you’re white, male, rich, cisgendered, heterosexual and/or buddies with the interviewer. But it’s bad economics.

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