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Women not very involved in civic affairs on Facebook

A new study has been checking what 20 million users like on Facebook. Its conclusion is that men are interested in politics, women in the environment. Young Norwegian women are among the least involved in civic affairs in the world.
Only about 3 in 10 women are interested in politics, as opposed to 7 in 10 men. Roughly speaking, this gap between men and women applies both globally and in Norway. Photo: ThinkStock
Only about 3 in 10 women are interested in politics, as opposed to 7 in 10 men. Roughly speaking, this gap between men and women applies both globally and in Norway. Photo: ThinkStock

The study was published in the journal Social Science Computer Review, and is probably the first in the world to use big data to survey and analyse gender and civic involvement on Facebook in different countries.

It concludes that Facebook does not appear to even out gender differences. Norway is one of ten countries included in the survey. Young Norwegian girls show little interest in politics on Facebook, compared with girls from the same age group in other countries. Young women from countries including Iran, Spain, England and the USA show more interest.

Men politics, women environment

The study reveals that women of all ages are far less interested than men in politics and news updates on Facebook. Women make up only 30 per cent of those who express an interest in politics. In general terms, this gender gap applies both in Norway and all over the world.

FACTS

  • The study was funded by the Research Council of Norway (VERDIKT programme) via the project delTA. Participants included Opinion, Amedia, Plan Norge, Kongsvinger municipality, NRK and AHO.
  • Source: Brandtzæg, P.B. (online first). Facebook is no 'great equalizer': A big data approach to gender differences in civic engagement across countries. Social Science Computer Review.
  • See also the delTA project's own blog postings about their findings.

“When we look at the recent major political movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Syrian Revolution and Diren Gezi, which have also been strongly mobilised on Facebook, we see that the proportion of women here is only around 30%. Women – and particularly young women aged between 13 and 28, tend to demonstrate an interest in humanitarian aid and environmental issues”, says Petter Brandtzæg at SINTEF.

Billions express their opinion

“Facebook is a new and important communal arena, and the biggest social media in the world, with over 1.5 billion users. Gender differences apparent here is an important topic. There is a low threshold here for people to express their interest in politics and civic involvement, for example by using likes”, says Brandtzæg. “It was interesting for me to see whether we would find the same differences between the genders on Facebook as we do offline. The gender perspective is also interesting because women use Facebook and social media much more than men. In many ways, this is an arena for the girls”, he says.

Brandtzæg started by examining the claim that many researchers have made, namely that Facebook and social media even out the differences between the genders. He then divided ‘civic involvement’ into the fields of politics, information orientation, and more social activism orientation, such as interest in the humanitarian and environmental movements.

“The use of big data made it possible to make comparisons across several countries. The method also has significant benefits in terms of measurement and analysis. Traditionally, research has focussed on what men and women say they do, while big data analyses reveal what people actually do. An examination of behaviour and specific preferences, as this study reveals, will thus result in a more correct picture of gender differences”, he says.

Traditional gender role patterns

The results of the survey demonstrate that Facebook has no role whatsoever in narrowing the gender gap. Even in a liberal country such as Norway, traditional gender role patterns linger on.
“We might have expected that young Norwegian women in the age group 13-28 would be more similar to men in terms of their political engagement”, says Brandtzæg. “But in fact the gender gap is greater than, or identical to, that recorded in countries such as Iran and Brazil”, he says.

In terms of political engagement on Facebook, the gender gap was quite wide in all of the ten countries surveyed. Brandtzæg was surprised to find that in Spain, the UK, Brazil and the USA, the proportion of young women in the 13-28 age group interested in politics was higher than that in Norway.

So he is somewhat astonished as to why the ‘political gender gap’ isn’t narrower in Norway than in countries such as Brazil and Iran. And why are gender gaps narrower, or just as wide, in countries that rank far below Norway on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index?

Explanations

Brandtzæg believes that the results can be explained by what is known as the equality paradox. The more modern and equality-focused a country is, the more women and men seem to make more gender-traditional choices. Other studies also substantiate this explanation.

“Alternative explanations are that the use of Facebook is largely about self-presentation and identity”, says Brandtzæg. “Young people are in a phase of their life when they are developing their gender identity, and this development is increasingly taking place on social media such as Facebook. The interests chosen by young people on Facebook and other media could thus be adapted according to stereotypical cultural conceptions of what gender is. When girls communicate and socialise intensively with other girls on Facebook, this can reinforce gender role patterns”, he says.

Published 12 November 2015
av Åse Dragland for Gemini.no