What We Follow On Social Media May Be Holding Women Back

26/09/2016 16:22

Social media has opened up so many new opportunities for young women. It has empowered them to create and share their own content, to find communities of like-minded people and to expand their minds by learning from and communicating with people around the world. However, there is a deeply worrying trend. Evidence shows that what women love, and consume at scale on social media, is pretty one dimensional. And, this biased diet may be limiting their vision of what success or fulfilment looks like.

I have built a career based on the data sciences. I use Big Data to quantify and measure what people do. At dunnhumby (the customer science company I co-founded), our philosophy was 'you are what you buy'. By pioneering the Tesco Clubcard, we could see what people bought. The patterns in people's transaction behaviour, helped us to understand what people wanted. This science helped to promote Tesco to the number one UK market position with an unprecedented market share leap. Similarly, in the USA, we helped Kroger to defend and win market share against the giant retailer, Walmart.

Today, my company Starcount builds on that early science, using our behaviour on social media to identify what we love, even more than brands. Today, we can say 'you are who you follow'. Our digital footprint and our consumption of social media allow us to understand people's passions, motivations, and aspirations.

Our research using 1.4 billion people has revealed that women have an overwhelming preference to follow fashion and celebrity, above all else. Men's social media usage, on the other hand, demonstrates a far more diverse range of interests, even from an early age, taking in topics such as sport, politics, business and gaming. In other words, a glance at the average woman's social timeline would see you bombarded with content that implies that 'you are how you look', while a man's timeline would reinforce that 'you are what you do'.

This phenomenon may have a dangerous impact on young women. By putting the emphasis on appearances over actions, women are more likely to be self-critical and lack confidence. This, in turn, may negatively impact them reaching for or realising their full potential, both personally and professionally.

Facebook was originally conceived as a "hot or not" site to rate the appearance of students at Harvard University. Considering these origins, it's perhaps unsurprising that an unwelcome side effect of social media is a focus on the external - a glossy, sometimes filtered version of real life - in other words 'Brand Me'. This assessment of 'how you are seen' versus 'how you see yourself' is being ingested by today's young women and, whether consciously or subconsciously, manifesting itself through their choices both on and offline.

If girls don't see beyond celebrities to a more diverse range of professional and fulfilled, women on their screens, there is no reference or role model. When we ask men who inspires them, many will spontaneously name a sportsman or business leader but, when we ask women, they are more likely to name a family member, probably their mother or grandmother. These are the only real people they see, who inspire them, who want them to be more than they are today.

But in a world where we constantly ask why it is that women don't 'reach higher' in their careers and with their ambitions, it may be worth thinking about more examples of what successful women look like - what they do. It would be uplifting to see more women say 'if she has done that, maybe I can too.'

By promoting engaging content and showcasing inspiring females from all walks of life, we can burst the superficial bubble that's limiting the potential of so many young women.
Learning from social media patterns in this way could affect more than just individual career paths. It was estimated in March of this year that the under-utilisation of women's skills costs the UK economy up to 2% GDP, or £36 billion* per year. Just think of the positive impact for all of us if more women reached a bit higher.

With The Female Lead campaign, my hope is that each and every schoolchild (both girls and boys) will be able to spontaneously name one female role model - and not just Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian.

With such an incredible range of female politicians, scientists, businesswomen and sports stars active on social media, isn't it time we widened our online gaze to include them? From Laura Trott to J.K. Rowling, there's a host of inspiring women we can follow. Only when we see can we be inspired to act. We should never forget that you can't be what you can't see.

Edwina Dunn is an ambassador for the Investec Private Banking Restless Spirits Campaign. Read more about her passion to #ChallengeOrdinary at and @investecpb_uk