On-de­mand la­bor mar­ket isn’t im­mune to bias, study finds

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - By Joshua Brustein

Re­searchers are find­ing racial and gen­der dis­par­i­ties in just about ev­ery cor­ner of the on-de­mand la­bor mar­ket.

A new study showed black peo­ple re­ceived more neg­a­tive reviews than white work­ers on online la­bor mar­ket­places TaskRab­bit and Fiverr and that peo­ple who used the ser­vices to hire fe­male work­ers were less likely to leave any feed­back at all.

The find­ings from the aca­demic study, ex­pected to be pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary, fol­low sim­i­lar re­search show­ing that driv­ers with Uber and Lyft and Airbnb hosts were dis­crim­i­nat­ing against cus­tomers with black- sound­ing names. TaskRab­bit was pre­vi­ously the sub­ject of another study, which showed that work­ers were less likely to take jobs in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods.

The prob­lem isn’t that tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies have de­signed sys­tems that are ex­plic­itly dis­crim­i­na­tory but that they en­able peo­ple to act on their bi­ases, said Christo Wil­son, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at North­east­ern Univer­sity and an au­thor of the new study. “There are lim­its to what you can do to make your users act differently,” he said. But the struc­ture of the mar­ket­places mat­ters.

In the lat­est study, re­searchers scraped data from user pro­files on TaskRab­bit and Fiverr’s web­sites in De­cem­ber 2015, col­lect­ing pho­to­graphs, reviews and the worker’s place­ment in search rank­ings. The re­searchers hired peo­ple to look at the pho­to­graphs and cat­e­go­rize each per­son based on gen­der and race. An abridged ver­sion of the study was pub­lished on Satur­day. MIT Tech­nol­ogy Re­view first re­ported on the re­search last week.

While re­searchers found ev­i­dence of bias on both sites, the study showed TaskRab­bit’s plat­form to be par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic be­cause user feed­back in­flu­enced where peo­ple showed up in the search rank­ings. White women and black men ap­peared lower in rank­ings, while Asian work­ers and black women were higher. Given that peo­ple tend to choose one of the first op­tions pre­sented to them in any online search, this could af­fect em­ploy­ment prospects.

While TaskRab­bit ac­knowl­edged that it in­cor­po­rates reviews into the al­go­rithm it uses to de­cide search rank­ings, it said they carry rel­a­tively lit­tle weight. “We spend a lot of time think­ing about this is­sue and work­ing to min­i­mize dis­crim­i­na­tion and bias on our plat­form,” the com­pany said in an emailed state­ment.

Fiverr also dis­puted the re­sults of the study. “De­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion is not required on Fiverr, and our user ex­pe­ri­ence places an em­pha­sis on the Gig, not the per­son com­plet­ing it,” it said in a state­ment. The com­pany added that many peo­ple don’t post pho­to­graphs of them­selves.

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