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Facebook has come under fire from an investigative campaign group for permitting sexist job adverts to be published.

Global Witness claims that the social network failed in its duty to prevent discriminatory targeting of adverts, and employed an algorithm that resulted in biases in terms of who could see vacancies.

In a sting operation, the environmental and human rights group alleges that virtually all UK Facebook users shown job vacancies for mechanics were men, whereas equivalent ads for nursery nurses were seen near universally by women.

Explaining the approach, Naomi Hirst of Global Witness said: “That meant that it was entirely up to Facebook’s algorithm to decide who to show the ads to, and what it decided appears to us to be downright sexist.”

The ads were among four variants all linked to real vacancies posted on Indeed.com, with each ad skewing overwhelmingly to one sex or the other. Overall 96% of those who viewed the mechanics ad were men, reversing to 95% female for the nursery nurse post. Similar ads for airline pilots and psychologists were viewed by 75% men and 77% women respectively.

A further two adverts were created by Global Witness and passed by Facebook, instructing the social media giant not to show one advert to women and the other to anyone over the age of 55. Both adverts were approved, with the only nod to equality coming in the form of a check box asking Global Witness to confirm that it would not discriminate against either group.

Dismissing the allegations, Facebook said: “Our system takes into account different kinds of information to try and serve people ads they will be most interested in and we are reviewing the findings within this report.”

Global Witness has filed a submission to the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission and has written to the Information Commissioner to force Facebook to change its ways.

This discrepancy is at the heart of a discriminatory advertising issue that has been bubbling away at Facebook for years, with the social network only agreeing to end the practice in the US.