Evidence about Online Gender Bias and how to avoid it at work

Empirical analyses of YouTube, Instagram and Online Music videos show that the presence of women focuses on stereotypically feminine topics and formats while overall, they are underrepresented. Companies can eliminate the toxic spill-over of online gender bias onto the workplace.

If you believe that men and women are similarly represented on, e.g., YouTube, your perception equals that of young people. 80% of 13 to 19 year-olds think that an equal number of males and females perform on YouTube. The reality is one woman for every two men. “What should worry us more than the unbalanced representation are the stereotypes that are perpetuated across all formats and that the online posing and playing norm is strengthening existing gender biases in talent management, collaboration and leadership”, comments Michael Stuber, The D&I Engineer.

When bias becomes (online) normality

Think women, think beauty, fashion and household? Think men, think gaming, comedy and sports? What sounds like an outdated parody of black and white gender images actually summarises the results of an empirical analysis of YouTube formats by gender. While 71% of women show themselves in a private context (and related topics), men position themselves more in public, and they cover many more fields and declare their online activities more often as ‘professional’, compared to women. “The consistency of the discrepancies across topics and formats means that gender bias is being restored and nurtured while we think it declines and fades”, Stuber warns.

Pressure to idealise yourself: boys fake more than girls

In a second study, gender dynamics on Instagram were analysed including the impact of influencers. A strong normative force was found in which influencers play a key role in reducing existing diversity within both gender groups (no third gender nor intersexual aspects were examined in this study). The analysis shows that girls which follow influencers consider it more important to be slim than their friends who don’t follow. Boys, on the other hand, are more inclined to ‘optimise’ their online pictures according to gender norms: Wider shoulders, stronger arms or legs, or added six packs. The researchers point out that the original idea of Instagram, to capture the moment in a spontaneous and hence natural way, has been distorted.

Similar gender biases in corporate culture, talent management and leadership

While companies have implemented many meritocratic HR processes, most still struggle with gender biases embedded in their unwritten rules. “We have found a variety of invisible gender norms in every organisation that we analysed over 20 years”, Michael Stuber reports, adding that many of the corporate cultural biases are now reinforced by what he calls ‘online rules’ that he describes as follows:

  • Idea of infinite talent supply creates the notion of replaceability and a demand of perfectionism
  • Fulfilling expectancies is considered more important than authenticity
  • Everybody can impose and apply their own rules on others
  • Only the moment counts, not your achievements to date
  • Adaptability is required as the rules may change overnight
  • Popularity (gained by likes and agreement) is more important than critical thinking

For YouTube, scientists have just confirmed that ‘the structures of the medium (logic of the algorithm, expectations of the audience, financing possibilities) influence the content’ as it relates to gender biases.

For many corporate processes, experts observe the exact same dynamics: Structural and cultural defaults are perpetuating gender biases which continue to result in uphill battles for women while limiting the impact of superficial D&I initiatives. Improvements of recent years are now eroded or reversed by the implicit gender biases spilling over from the web culture which also manifests itself in societal phenomena: Beards, burgers and boasts versus flowers, skirts and princesses are a simplified description of some everyday equivalents we have seen trending in urban centres across countries.

Platform of opportunities

Regardless of the fierce biases researchers found, there is one element that should probably be in the focus of any future strategy: Online platforms provide an almost equal opportunity for all and it is largely up to the individual to grasp it. That includes the decision what to use the platforms for. Accordingly, the described studies talk about ‘self-staging’ of men and women – with the exception of music videos where women are often portrayed in a sexualised way (53% of Top 100 videos show women without their head!).

One group was found to take advantage of the online opportunities. Ethnic minorities are well presented on YouTube: 32% of female and 49% of male youtubers analysed were categorised ‘with migration history’.

Further Reading

Diversity in the Hi-Tech Industry

D&I and the Digital Transformation

D&I issues at start up companies


Sources (German)