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The Apple Card’s Algorithm Goes Both Ways on Women’s Credit Limits

November 13, 2019, 4:49 PM UTC

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Over the weekend, Twitter suddenly blew up with what may be the world’s first instance of credit card limits going viral. Then again, when Apple does anything, people tend to care about it a lot more than they otherwise would.

It started when David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of open source software tool Ruby on Rails, began tweeting last week that the Apple Card, the credit card made for mobile wallets Apple launched over the summer, was a “sexist program.” He had received a credit limit 20 times higher than the measly $57.24 limit his wife received when she applied for the card, despite the fact that they have shared assets and her credit score is higher, he wrote.

A bunch of other people tweeted back about similar experiences—including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who wrote that he’d received 10 times the credit limit his wife did when they applied for the card. By Saturday afternoon, the New York State Department of Financial Services had launched an investigation into whether credit card limit decisions for the Apple Card—which are handled by Goldman Sachs, the card’s issuing bank—had a gender bias.

I decided to do my own investigation, albeit not quite so rigorously as the regulators. I asked my husband to apply for an Apple Card. A couple of minutes later, his credit limit decision came back: $7,500. I checked my limit: $20,000—or almost triple what my husband got. Our credit scores are virtually identical; we pay our credit cards in full each month; neither of us carries any debt.

With just these data points, I’m not convinced the Apple Card is simply discriminating against women when it assigns credit limits. But it’s still possible the algorithm that powers Goldman Sachs’s decisions may emphasize certain factors that inadvertently result in lower credit card limits for certain groups. In this case, that could be people’s individual income (which could penalize non-breadwinners even if their household income and net worth are substantial), or those with comparatively little credit history in their own name (such as joint owners of accounts opened under another family member’s name).

In our society, both those factors could work against married women, which may be what happened with the Apple Card. Credit card limit decisions are never based on gender, according to Carey Halio, CEO of Goldman Sachs Bank. “In fact, we do not know your gender or marital status during the Apple Card application process,” she wrote in a statement. But in “many cases” where people received surprisingly low limits, it was “because their existing credit cards are supplemental cards under their spouses’s primary account—which may result in the applicant having limited personal credit history.”

By now, the proliferation of artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision-making has left many examples of bias. Often, the problems are rooted in incomplete or skewed data sets on which the algorithms are based. Lack of data can hamper any company entering a new business—as Apple and Goldman Sachs are doing by launching a credit card, a first for each of them. It’s likely that as they collect more data on their credit card customers, they’ll be able to tweak their decision-making process and ideally, prevent against any inadvertent biases, if they existed in the first place.

If there’s one upshot from the controversy, it’s this: With everyone testing out whether the Apple Card’s credit limits are sexist in the last few days, a lot more people just signed up for accounts—and that means more data to feed the algorithm.

Jen Wieczner

jen.wieczner@fortune.com

@jenwieczner

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