For better or worse, much of life is categorized along gendered lines: Clothing stores have sections for men and women, certain foods are considered more manly or more feminine, and even drinks can take on a gendered sheen (“manmosa,” anyone?).
Our newly published research finds that even social media is a canvas for rigid gender stereotyping.
Specifically, we show that men who post often on social media are seen as feminine, a phenomenon we refer to as the “frequent-posting femininity stereotype.” We observed this bias in four experiments featuring over 1,300 respondents from the U.S. and U.K.
To post is to be seen as unmanly
These dynamics have far-reaching implications in the world of marketing. It is widely known, for example, that Coke Zero was created as an alternative to Diet Coke, a product that men notoriously shied away from for its perceived ties to women who wanted to lose weight. There’s even a tendency for people to think it is unmanly to sleep more, because needing rest is connected to being weak and vulnerable.
We thought about how some of these notions might come into play on social media. Polling data suggests that men and women use social media platforms in very different ways: For example, men tend to be on fewer platforms overall and don’t post as often as women on apps like Instagram.
We wondered if gender biases had anything to do with why. Are men judged harshly when they share on social media?
To test this question, we ran a series of experiments in which respondents were asked to evaluate a “normal, average, ordinary” man who either frequently or rarely posts on social media. To provide a more concrete picture, we described the man as someone who posts online for fun and has a moderate number of followers.
Respondents consistently rated the man as more feminine when he was described as a frequent social media poster. This was true regardless of assumptions made about the man’s age, education, wealth and preferred social media platform. We also controlled for the gender, age, political beliefs and social media use of the people who participated in the study.
Notably, we used an identical scenario to describe a woman’s posting behavior – and post frequency had no effect on how feminine people thought she was.
An aversion to appearing needy
What, then, explains this somewhat unusual effect?
We discovered that anyone who frequently posts, regardless of their gender, comes across as a person who seeks attention and validation. But this projected sense of neediness only translates to perceived femininity in men.
This makes sense. After all, research has shown that rejecting femininity is crucial to conventional notions of manhood, while avoiding masculinity is not necessarily crucial to conventional womanhood. Indeed, ads, TV shows, movies and music continue to reinforce ideas that men be resolutely stoic and self-sufficient. Our results indicate that by posting frequently online, men come across as the opposite.
Not only that, but the “frequent-posting femininity stereotype” effect turned out to be even more stubborn than we expected.
Two of our experiments attempted, but ultimately failed, to curb this bias.
First, we examined whether men were judged differently when sharing content about others as opposed to themselves – the idea being that this form of posting behavior would come across as considerate and not as validation-seeking. Second, we examined whether male influencers – who post largely for professional reasons – faced the same stereotype.
In both cases – and to our surprise – frequent posting caused participants to see these social media users as more feminine.
Broadening the definition of manhood
There’s a lot we don’t know about this unique prejudice.
For example, it’s unclear to what degree the frequent-posting femininity stereotype affects how men are judged in different cultures. While men around the world are often considered less masculine when they appear needy, our research only included participants from the U.K. and U.S.
Just as critical: How can the connection between frequent posting and femininity be broken altogether? Our research suggests that this link is durable and reflects persistent gender dynamics.
Still, it’s worth exploring how platforms can curb this prejudice through their design. For example, BeReal is an app that prompts users to quickly share an unedited photo snapshot of what they’re doing at a random time throughout the day. Functions like these seem to emphasize authenticity, routine and community. Is this the recipe that’s needed to change the association between posting and validation-seeking?
Notably, men are experiencing historic rates of social isolation and facing dire mental health consequences. This health crisis is likely exacerbated by pervasive biases that make men feel like they can’t talk about their problems or ask for help. The frequent-posting femininity stereotype reveals another instance in which men are judged for attempting to express themselves and build social connections.
As New York Times correspondent Claire Cain Miller wrote in 2018, there are “many ways to be a girl but one way to be a boy,” both in Western cultures and around the world.
What will it take for that rigid definition of manhood to be broadened?