Does mitigating ML's impact disparity require treatment disparity?

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 31 (NeurIPS 2018)

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Zachary Lipton, Julian McAuley, Alexandra Chouldechova


Following precedent in employment discrimination law, two notions of disparity are widely-discussed in papers on fairness and ML. Algorithms exhibit treatment disparity if they formally treat members of protected subgroups differently; algorithms exhibit impact disparity when outcomes differ across subgroups (even unintentionally). Naturally, we can achieve impact parity through purposeful treatment disparity. One line of papers aims to reconcile the two parities proposing disparate learning processes (DLPs). Here, the sensitive feature is used during training but a group-blind classifier is produced. In this paper, we show that: (i) when sensitive and (nominally) nonsensitive features are correlated, DLPs will indirectly implement treatment disparity, undermining the policy desiderata they are designed to address; (ii) when group membership is partly revealed by other features, DLPs induce within-class discrimination; and (iii) in general, DLPs provide suboptimal trade-offs between accuracy and impact parity. Experimental results on several real-world datasets highlight the practical consequences of applying DLPs.