Sports bras vs. lifting weights: Gender stereotyping in Facebook recommendations

By Joris Binsbergen, Fenna van Dijk, Lynn Hoekstra, Karina Strauch, and Anna-Lisa Vuijk
Amsterdam, 8th of April 2020

To this day stereotypes are hard to shake off. Also in the sports world there still seem to be assumptions about what should be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. As Facebook is the biggest social media platform and expected to be forward-thinking, is gender stereotyping even present here? If you take a look at sports posts on your timeline, do you think they will be based on your gender? 

Gender, and the stereotypes they come with, have always been an interesting and well-examined construct, especially regarding sports. Are men better at, and more interested in them? Do women only like to do ballet and change the channel when a football game is on? Whether you’re a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, these days everyone is sitting at home. And what do we do to keep ourselves occupied? Besides doing online yoga classes, baking banana bread and shaving our heads, we spend a lot more time on social media. According to Yahoo Finance, “Facebook is experiencing a significant jump in usage of its services including Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp amid the growing incidence of Coronavirus pandemic”. I mean, we need a way to keep up with our favorite sports teams, right, boys? Or am I being stereotypical right now? Because you can’t have missed that besides all gyms being closed and amateur sports competitions being canceled, the biggest sports events like the Olympics, Wimbledon Championships and the European Football Championship are also postponed. So, on what better platform can you still see your favorite football players hold up a roll of toilet paper than Facebook? Or see flashbacks from former Wimbledon editions? Of course, it’s not just men who have this privilege, women are as equal in their right to use this platform to check up on their favorite sports pages! But would it be a difference being a man or a woman on Facebook, regarding the types of sports posts you see on your timeline? Or, do you ever feel like you are seeing (or not seeing) certain posts on Facebook based on your gender?
Debates about gender and gender stereotyping have been around for quite some time and might follow us around for another while. We decided to focus on gender stereotyping and how this is affecting your newsfeed on Facebook, and there is no better way to do this than to focus on sports posts, since it can be argued that gender stereotyping is still quite common in sports. Common sayings like ‘you throw like a girl’ or ‘you run like a girl’ suggest that women who play sports might have to face certain stereotypes and that being a ‘girl’ might be some type of disadvantage. This is also why we decided to look at male and female accounts in comparison to each other, because we would like to see if there is indeed a difference in what sports posts people might see based on their gender on Facebook.

We decided to focus on Facebook since Facebook is one of the most popular and well-used platforms in the world. Posts on Facebook are seen by millions of people who like and share posts with even more people. To conduct this study and shape this article we decided to use the Facebook Tracking Exposed tool which enables us to collect public posts on Facebook and work with the data that we collected. We also decided to create two bot accounts on Facebook, because it is quite interesting to compare two completely new accounts, without any history. The results from the bot accounts are then being compared to two personal accounts (also male and female), which we decided to use because the personal accounts do have history, which should be interesting. So, let’s jump into the interesting part of this article! We’ll take a look at the results of this study, give a few examples and look at some opinions of a journalism graduate in our short interview. We hope you are already curious to see if there is a case of gender stereotyping when it comes to sports-related posts on Facebook.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels, 2020

“Male-oriented sports posts are dominating the timelines”

So, the two personal accounts that we tracked through the Facebook Tracking Exposed tool are from Joris and Anna-Lisa, and the two bot accounts are named Maarten and Sanne. Maarten Lansink is 22 years old, born in Utrecht, lives in Amsterdam and studies Media and Culture at UvA. He himself does fitness, is interested in boxing and football and likes healthy food. Sanne van der Vorst is a 20-year-old girl, born in Hilversum, now lives in Utrecht and studies Media and Culture at UvA.  She likes to go to the gym as well and does gymnastics. She is interested in football and yoga and likes healthy foods as well. These accounts all liked the same pages so we could research who would see more sport-related posts and of what kind. These pages were all sport, (healthy) food, or student-related pages. The collected data gave us an insight into which account got what specific posts on their timeline. Our first visualization created from this data is shown below. Which account got the most sports-related posts on their timeline in general?

Most noticeable is that the male bot account has the highest percentage in sports posts on his timeline. The personal accounts both have less than 10%. This is unsurprising though because they are both not into sports. Automatically you wouldn’t get that many sports posts on your timeline since they have a history. But Joris’ account has seen more sports posts than Anna-Lisa’s account. That same outcome can be seen between the two bot accounts, the male bot account has seen more sports posts even though they both liked the exact same pages. But what has gender to do with sports? Is there a reason why both male accounts get more sports posts in comparison to their respective female account? Sports could fall under stereotyping, so maybe Facebook does see gender and uses it in its algorithm? Because as shown before, the male accounts get more sports-related posts on their feed than the female accounts. Especially with the bot accounts, their timeline should be looking roughly the same, but the male bot account got 68% sport related posts on his timeline and the female bot account 51%. This difference could be a coincidence, but it’s quite significant.
The next step is to look at these sports posts and what percentage of these posts are gender-related. We first looked at the personal accounts. However, they got very scarce results. They both just didn’t get many sport-related posts. Hence why we’re focusing on the bot accounts from now on. The graph below shows how many posts they saw from the three Facebook pages they both followed that were fully gender orientated, like a male versus female football page.

The left bar shows that the male bot (again) got way more posts in comparison to the female bot account. But the female account does in percentage have a higher number of posts from women’s sports team pages. So, you could say that women see more female sports team posts than men. But then again, the sports world is mostly dominated by male teams, like in football.
Another visualization that shows the difference in what the bot accounts saw when looking at gender, is shown below. We used fitness pages (Basic-Fit and Fit for Free) and the official Olympic Facebook page.

Noticeable is the female bot account regarding fitness posts; she just got one fitness post (out of the 1001 total posts) and this post is female-oriented, but that’s because of International Women’s Day (March 8). International Women’s Day is also the reason why it seems like the male account got so many female-oriented posts, he did, but they were all because of International Women’s Day. So, if you exclude this day, the female bot account wouldn’t have gotten any fitness post’s and the male account would’ve gotten only male or neutral fitness posts on his timeline. The Olympic page did show up more frequently on both timelines. But again, on both accounts, the male posts showed up the most and the female account does have a higher percentage of female posts than the male bot account.
All these data findings come down to the assertion that male-oriented sports posts are dominating the timelines. The female account gets fewer sports posts on their timelines than male accounts. And finally, when it comes down to the posts themselves, the female bot account got, on average, more female-oriented posts on her timeline.

Screenshot from Maarten’s timeline, taken on March 10, 2020

“You had to scroll quite a bit to come to a female sports-related post”

Besides using Facebook Tracking Exposed to gather data, we also noticed some things while actually scrolling through our timelines with the four accounts. Most of what we saw is aligned with the data we found and serves as an example to complement it.
Starting with the male accounts, something that we noticed while scrolling through Facebook with the bot account (Maarten Lansink), is that there were not only male-related posts. However, you had to scroll quite a bit to come to a female sports-related post. Both accounts, for example, followed Ajax and Ajax women, but regardless the bot accounts got more posts from Ajax (men). As mentioned, on March 8 it was International Women’s Day, so there was a lot of content about women, also related to sports of course. This brings us to the content of most female related posts. There was something remarkable when looking at female sports posts: the posts that popped up about women related to sports are really focused on achievements. We are kind of more ‘used to’  seeing men’s sports, while women are still trying to win their place in this sports world. This is also showing on Facebook. Women are putting themselves out there by, for example, telling background stories about their sport. Why would this be? Do women’s sports need this to make itself relevant? Or are we just not yet at the point of both gender sports being equal?

Two screenshots from Maarten’s timeline, taken on March 6, 2020

On Joris’s account, we noticed that he mainly saw men’s related sports posts, but only after a week or so. Before this experiment, he actually never saw sports-related posts, as we’ve mentioned that he is not that interested in sports. It is remarkable to see that when he starts ‘caring’ about sports he almost only sees men related posts.

Moving on to Sanne’s account, as seen from the data, it has in percentage a higher number of posts from women’s sports team pages. This is also something we saw while scrolling. For example, she saw many posts from Ajax vrouwen, while she also followed the ‘normal’ Ajax page ( men).
Also, as opposed to Maarten, there were quite a lot of posts that were not about sports. For example, when the coronavirus started intervening in our project there were articles about the coronavirus and the effects it can have on pregnancy. Also, there were many posts about International Women’s Day, not all related to sports, and even after a few days, they were still popping up. More examples of quite stereotypical posts, not related to sports, were stories about female celebrities and their breast implants, posts about sports bras, low-calorie recipes, etc. With all these findings combined you could say that this is a quite ‘gendered’ account.

Screenshot from Sanne’s timeline, taken on March 4, 2020

For our personal account Anna-Lisa, in general, we don’t have the feeling that she saw much sports-related content, compared to what we saw on the other accounts. Also, the content that she saw regarding sports was mostly from NOS Sports and about football, and were quite gender neutral (as opposed to the bot account). The football content was mostly about male soccer players, which is interesting because the bot account saw mostly women’s sports posts, according to the data. Especially the Olympic page was neutral, they shifted between posting about males and about females and sometimes they did both. She did see posts about female athletes, however, but we did not have the feeling that she saw them just because we were using a female account. They were not necessarily female-targeted, as she saw posts about male athletes as well.

“I would really find that something straight out of the 50s”

To get another perspective on our research we spoke with Daphne Olde Heuvelt, who is a graduate from the School of Journalism in Zwolle. At her current job at a hospital, she deals with social media, in particular Facebook. Her audience requires her to be generally neutral with the content that she creates and shares online. Sometimes, however, she focuses on a specific gender. “Not many people realize that breast cancer also affects men,” Daphne says. “But when I post content about breast cancer, I focus on women, probably subconsciously, because it’s regarded as a more ‘female’ disease.” The same applies to content about makeup for cancer patients who lost their eyebrows or eyelashes. “Of course there are men who wear makeup, but with these types of posts I generally focus on female patients, because again, makeup is seen as something female.” In light of this, Daphne understands why some companies target men or women. Whether it’s ethical or not, in a marketing context it’s much more profitable to make use of gender stereotypes: Gillette is a company that instantly comes to her mind, which broadened their market by introducing Venus razors to female consumers. As a woman, she notices gender-targeted marketing herself too and she is fine with that, as long as it isn’t to the prejudice of any gender.
But when it comes to companies that have both men and women as their audience, Daphne considers it a serious issue when their pages show different content to both genders. “On Facebook I follow Personal Body Plan and the posts that I see on my timeline depict slim, muscular women, while their platform in general targets both men and women,” she says. “I noticed that they don’t necessarily change the text of their posts so men read the same thing, but as a woman, I only see pictures of muscular women. I understand they want to make themselves more appealing to both genders, but showing only men or women is absolutely unnecessary in my opinion.”
Also, news platforms sharing their content with a specific gender is not a very good thing in Daphne’s eyes. “I don’t know to what extent this happens, but what if a gender-neutral platform such as NOS Sport shows only male football to men and female handball to women? I would really find that something straight out of the 50s. Why would men not be interested in sports played by women and vice versa? If you’re interested in a sport, you’re interested in the sport itself and not only when it is played by one gender, right? But that’s my view.”
It doesn’t scare Daphne if Facebook uses her gender as a factor in its algorithm. “Then I should also be scared of cookies,” she explains. “I remember being slightly anxious about cookies invading our privacy a couple of years ago. The heated debates at that time made you more aware of what you talked about and shared on social media because everything could be tracked. The same goes for gender on Facebook: you make your gender visible to the public yourself, so you should be aware of the consequences. But if you have issues with that, you should also be able to opt-out of gender-biased algorithmization.”
To a certain extent, Daphne considers discussions about gender a good thing because many people still feel disadvantaged in society. “Marketing wise I can imagine why gender targeting happens, but especially on neutral platforms like Facebook, it shouldn’t be the case that they decide what is most important for you to see, based on your gender. I’m really surprised about your results, I did not expect them to be that significant already in such a short amount of time. It’s good to start a dialogue on how gender division is happening on social media and make people more aware of it.”

So, wrapping up, what can we say about this ‘gender division’ on Facebook based on our findings?

What we found most striking, is the fact that male-oriented sports posts are dominating the timelines. Not only did our male accounts see more sports posts than our female accounts, but also when we looked at all the sports posts that were shown to all four accounts, there were more male-oriented posts. When looking at our bot accounts, we noticed that our female bot account Sanne saw more female-focused content such as posts about women’s sports teams, while our male bot Maarten saw mainly male-oriented posts. This is remarkable since they both liked exactly the same Facebook pages!
But there was something more we thought to be striking: a lot of the posts that showed up on the female timelines, mostly on the bot account, didn’t have anything to do with sports but were quite stereotypical. We mention posts about how the Coronavirus could affect a mother’s pregnancy, breast implants, and sports bras. Would men see these kinds of posts? We don’t think so, and our results suggest the same.
Given these results, you would almost say there is no doubt about it that Facebook actually does see gender and uses it in its algorithm, right? And with that, sports could actually fall under Facebook’s gender stereotyping. So, as Facebook uses gender in its algorithm, the bias is on the platform’s end. But why make a difference between gender in what you show people about sports? Just like Daphne said: sports are sports, whether played by males or females. Maybe if Facebook didn’t make such a distinction which reinforces people to stay in their online gender bubbles, there could be more equality in this male-dominated sports world. How about that?


We are Joris Binsbergen, Fenna van Dijk, Lynn Hoekstra, Karina Strauch and Anna-Lisa Vuijk.

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