Are Two Heads the Same as One? Identifying Disparate Treatment in Fair Neural Networks

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 (NeurIPS 2022) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Michael Lohaus, Matthäus Kleindessner, Krishnaram Kenthapadi, Francesco Locatello, Chris Russell


We show that deep networks trained to satisfy demographic parity often do so through a form of race or gender awareness, and that the more we force a network to be fair, the more accurately we can recover race or gender from the internal state of the network. Based on this observation, we investigate an alternative fairness approach: we add a second classification head to the network to explicitly predict the protected attribute (such as race or gender) alongside the original task. After training the two-headed network, we enforce demographic parity by merging the two heads, creating a network with the same architecture as the original network. We establish a close relationship between existing approaches and our approach by showing (1) that the decisions of a fair classifier are well-approximated by our approach, and (2) that an unfair and optimally accurate classifier can be recovered from a fair classifier and our second head predicting the protected attribute. We use our explicit formulation to argue that the existing fairness approaches, just as ours, demonstrate disparate treatment and that they are likely to be unlawful in a wide range of scenarios under US law.