In conducting research on how and why people engage in political discussion on social media sites, I found myself continually wondering about the question of gender. What interested me wasn’t the demographics of social media users–we know that the average user of social media is female and in the 18-24 age bracket–but rather the ways in which gender might structure political debate online.
A wide body of literature exists which suggests that women in positions of power are expected to conform to traditional conceptions of femininity. This often causes women to be evaluated differently than men for performing the same task. For example, a 1979 study by Rhoda Unger showed that female professors who were considered harsh graders were not perceived as being “nice” and “nurturant” and as such received lower evaluation scores. Men who were perceived as harsh graders, however, did not experience a commensurate drop in their evaluation scores. In addition, other studies have shown that female instructors who are perceived as being unsociable and unfriendly receive substantially worse evaluations than female instructors who are considered warm and friendly. In contrast, male instructors were given better evaluations when they were perceived as being unfriendly (Kierstead et al., 1988). These pernicious stereotypes regarding what constitutes appropriate behavior for each gender likewise manifest themselves in public political discourse; numerous studies have shown that female leaders are devalued when they employ direct and assertive governing tactics that are traditionally associated with masculinity (Eagly, Makhijani and Klonsky, 1992).
As such, it seems only natural to posit whether these disparities in how men and women are evaluated persist on social media sites. Are women who engage in heated political discourse online viewed differently than men who do the same? Are impassioned political arguments made by women online considered less authoritative? Less informed? What is the general perception of women who are opinion leaders within a particular online social network?
Unfortunately, there is a large absence of available research on the topic. This only serves, however, to make the issue of gender in online political debate a more interesting and fruitful area for us to explore through further reading, surveying, and experimentation!