SAN FRANCISCO -- Employers are using Facebook to target job ads to men only, excluding women and non-binary people from employment opportunities, according to a complaint filed Tuesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The complaint, the first step before filing a discrimination lawsuit, is being brought against Facebook and 10 employers on behalf of three women who say the ad filtering kept them from seeing job postings in male-dominated fields including construction, trucking and software. All but one of the job ads cited in the complaint were also targeted to younger workers.
“I shouldn’t be shut out of the chance to hear about a job opportunity just because I am a woman,” Linda Bradley, a job seeker and complainant, said in a statement about Tuesday's complaint.
Facebook is also named in the complaint "because it is creating the mechanisms by which employers can elect to unlawfully target their advertisements based on gender and age" and it's profiting from the ads, Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, told USA TODAY.
Spokesman Joe Osborne said Facebook had not yet had the opportunity to review the EEOC complaint.
"There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies," he said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to defending our practices."
Users are required to select their gender when opening a Facebook account, opening the door to employers targeting job ads based on gender. Facebook users can click on ads to see why they are seeing them. For example, one ad in 2017 from home security company Defenders stated: “DEFENDERS Careers wants to reach men ages 20 to 40.”
Facebook's ability to target messages to specific groups of people has made it an increasingly popular way for employers to reach job prospects, particularly through the use of targeted ads. A 2016 study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 66% of employers who recruit on social media use Facebook. In 2017, Facebook created tools for businesses to post job openings and for job seekers to hunt for new gigs.
Under U.S. law, companies are prohibited from discriminating in recruitment and hiring and from tailoring job ads to a specific gender or age range.
The three women bringing the EEOC complaint -- Bobbi Spees, who hails from a small town in McKean County, Pennsylvania, Linda Bradley, who was recently laid off from a call center in Franklin County, Ohio, and Renia Hudson from Chicago, who's been unemployed for two years -- say they were denied employment opportunities because employers targeted some or all of their Facebook ads only to men, according to Tuesday's complaint filed by the ACLU, the Outten & Golden law firm and CWA.
Spees, 35, works part-time in special education but has been hunting for a full-time job online and offline for 1 1/2 years, despite a master's degree in education and a wide range of experience including working in a container factory. She was surprised to find out that employers could target men and exclude women from seeing job ads on Facebook.
"I know I am capable of doing many, many things," she said. "I don't want my children growing up thinking you can't do a job because you are not male or because you are female. I think it's important that this comes to light and things are made fair."
Backing the complaint is the Communications Workers of America labor union, which last year filed a proposed class action lawsuit in California alleging Facebook allows discrimination against older workers by excluding them from job ads.
Job seekers are raising concerns about fairness in Facebook ads at a time when the Silicon Valley company is already under increased scrutiny from lawmakers, regulators and users. Public trust in ads on Facebook is crucial for the giant social network, which makes most of its money from showing messages from marketers to its more than 2 billion users.
At issue is the controversial ways the demographics of job seekers can be pinpointed. Facebook's ad tools allowed Russian operatives to sow political division on hot-button social issues during and after the 2016 presidential election and also made it possible for advertisers to target ads in offensive ways such as at "jew-haters" and to show housing ads to whites only. Facebook educates advertisers about their legal responsibilities and requires them to certify they are complying with laws that prohibit discrimination.
The company's vice president of ads, Rob Goldman, defended this type of ad targeting last year, saying it's similar to advertising on magazines or TV to appeal to specific demographics.
"Simply showing certain job ads to different age groups on services like Facebook or Google may not in itself be discriminatory — just as it can be OK to run employment ads in magazines and on TV shows targeted at younger or older people," he wrote in a blog post.
Last December, three workers and CWA sued companies including T-Mobile and Amazon alleging they used Facebook's ad-targeting tools to exclude older Americans from job opportunities. That suit estimated that hundreds of employers and employment agencies filter their ads by gender, race and age when seeking to fill open positions.
In an amended version of the suit filed in May, CWA alleged that Facebook encourages advertisers to exclude some job seekers by providing age filters and regularly updated data on how ads perform with different age groups. The labor union also claims Facebook targets job ads to “lookalike audiences” who are similar to those people who already work at the employer, making it even tougher for older workers to find employment.
The law generally shields Internet companies like Facebook from liability for content placed on their sites by others, but it's unclear whether it will in the California case or in the EEOC complaint filed Tuesday.
USA TODAY reached out to all 10 companies named in the complaint. They included software firm Abas USA, which ran ads for sales staff; retailer Nebraska Furniture Mart, which wanted to hire staff in Texas to assemble merchandise for delivery; the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, which was recruiting police officers; Rice Tire, which was looking for a mechanic in Maryland; Xenith, an athletics equipment manufacturer and retailer, was hunting for sales and sports marketing specialists; JK Moving Services, which was in the market for drivers; Enhanced Roofing & Remodeling, which was looking to hire an estimator; and employment agency Need Work Today, which places workers in the farming, construction, trucking and aviation industries. Nine of them did not respond.
Renewal by Andersen, which placed Facebook ads to hire window installers, declined to comment on the specifics of the EEOC complaint. "We are an equal opportunity employer, and we are proud of the diversity of our workforce," the company said in an emailed statement.