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Motivation

SportsShoes Investigates: Gender Bias in Sports-Focused Search Engine Images

Think of a footballer, any footballer.

Who came to mind? Was it iconic Cristiano Ronaldo, megastar David Beckham or perhaps world-renowned Lionel Messi?

Well, how about Brazilian footballer Marta Viera da Silva, who has scored the most World Cup goals of all time (across both men’s and women’s football)? Yes, that even beats male Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. Or the incredible Megan Rapinoe, who has repeatedly led the US football team to victory, including winning the 2019 Women’s World Cup and taking home the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament?

While there are some sports where women and men are given a very similar platform, it’s clear that for many others, men are still given higher priority than their female counterparts.

Representation matters, and the more visibility women’s sport has in the media, the more equal their efforts become. In order to understand more about the differentiation of visibility between women and men in sports, we looked to image results on search engines to understand what information we’re being provided.

We searched 10 different sports across 5 different search engine libraries to see just how equal (or, let’s face it, unequal) the results would be across male and female images. This means if we type in ‘football’ on a search engine, and review the images, how many out of the top 100 shown would be of male footballers and what percentage would be female?

This is what we found.

Sports with the Most Gender Bias in Images:

Our research revealed that only a shocking 1% of the results in an image search for “footballers” contained female players, making it the least representative sport in terms of images shown.

Sport% Female Images% Mixed Images% Male Images
Footballers1099
Rugby Players7093
Cyclists152164
Ice Hockey Players16183
Golfers19477
Short Distance Runners34660
Long Distance Runners361747
Weightlifters38260
Swimmers49348
Tennis Players53146

As the third and fourth worst sports for male image bias, searches for “Cyclists” and “Ice Hockey Players” return a similar percentage of female images, with 15% and 16% respectively. However, cycling has the highest number of mixed images of the sports analysed (21%), making it slightly more gender equal.

Sports Showing Gender Equality in Images:

Encouragingly, tennis is serving aces for females, featuring a fairly even 53% female images. It’s great to see that the incredible performances of superstar female players such as Steffi Graff, Martina Navratilova or, more recently, Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty are being more fairly acknowledged.

Of all the sports, swimmers had the most balanced selection of images: 49% female, 48% male and 3% mixed. And, as more women are turning their interests to strength building, weightlifting is also showing higher gender equality, with a 38% to 60% female-to-male split.

Gender Bias in Sports Images by Search Engine

The five search engines we reviewed for our research were Baidu, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Google and Yahoo. Along with the figures above, we also looked at the average percentage of male-to-female-to-mixed images each was showing across all 10 sports. While most showed a fairly similar picture, Baidu shone as the best performing in terms of equality with a split of 35% female to 60% male – still not a great picture, but a solid 6% more female imagery than the second most equal, Bing. DuckDuckGo showed the highest percentage of male images.

Search Engine% Female Images% Mixed Images% Male Images
Baidu35560
Bing30466
DuckDuckGo28567
Google29665
Yahoo29566

Taking a closer look, we reviewed how each search engine fares for a selection of sports.

Tennis:

As the most gender-equal sport for images, we expected to see a fairly even split across the search engines. However, it was interesting to see that Baidu (the most gender-equal search engine over all sports) showed a huge amount more female tennis player images than male. In fact, only around a quarter of their tennis images were solely male-focused.

The world’s most popular search engine, Google, tailed behind, with just 39% of their top images for tennis being female-led.

Search Engine% Female Images% Mixed Images% Male Images
Baidu73126
Bing52048
DuckDuckGo50050
Google39358
Yahoo49150

Football:

Football was the worst performing sport for gender-equality in images, and the results show an unsettling picture across the board. Baidu still held top spot with just two of the images from the top 100 being of women, and showed at least one mixed gender image. Google, however, was once again at the bottom of the list – surprisingly, 100% of their top 100 images for ‘football’ were just of men.

Search Engine% Female Images% Mixed Images% Male Images
Baidu2197
Bing1099
DuckDuckGo1099
Google00100
Yahoo1099

Long Distance Runners:

We love all things running here at SportsShoes, so couldn’t resist a little dig into the how each search engine fared for long distance running. In general, the sport sits in the middle in terms of equality, although still a strong leaning towards male runners.

Once again Baidu showed the most even spread of male-to-female images, although interestingly displayed by far the lowest percentage of mixed gender pictures. Google again showed far fewer images of women runners, and the second highest number of male images.

Search Engine& Female Images% Mixed Images% Male Images
Baidu42157
Bing382042
DuckDuckGo372241
Google292051
Yahoo362242

Cyclists:

And for all the keen cyclists out there, while the sport isn’t as poorly representative as football, it still didn’t fare too well.

Baidu continues to show the highest number of female cyclists, as well as the highest number of mixed images. As you can see, that means the search engine displayed the lowest number of male images... even if it’s still a much higher number than women-only.

DuckDuckGo took the bottom spot in terms of the percentage of female-to-male imagers, with just 13% being female focused and 70% being of male cyclists.

Search Engine% Female Images% Mixed Images% Male Images
Baidu192853
Bing171568
DuckDuckGo131770
Google142264
Yahoo142264

What Effect Does Sports Gender Image Bias Have?

So, we’ve seen the lack of representation in the images we’re being shown on search engines. But what effect is this having? In order to explore how this lack of exposure to female sporting role models impacts upon women and young girls in particular, we spoke to psychologist Dr Saima Latif who says that a lack of exposure to female sporting role models and an underrepresentation of sportswomen in image searches will deter sports participation amongst young women and could affect their mental and physical wellbeing:

“If girls and young women are not seeing females in sport, this sends a general message out to them and to society in general, that women’s sport is unimportant and unworthy of attention. If the female sportspeople are not visible then girls will not wish to emulate them or aspire to be like them. They will not have any desire to become sportswomen, thereby further jeopardising the female sports industry. When searching for sports stars, if the results do not show female sportspeople, then ultimately girls will not wish to aspire to be like them or emulate them. This is a vicious circle which will only contribute to the lack of visibility of female sportspeople.
Overall, the under-representation of women in sport may produce a negative view of sport as a whole amongst women and therefore impact girls’ participation in sport generally as well as their general physical health and mental wellbeing.”

Ladies, if this is inspiring you to work on your own fitness, then make sure you’re kitted out with all the right gear, from running shoes to weightlifting kit. You can hear more about inspirational women over on the Motivation or Inspiration pages of our running hubtrail running hub, and hiking hub, including a Q&A with Paralympian Clare Cashmore, this fascinating inspirational piece from 82-year-old mountain trekker Pat Boys or this interview with mountain running World Cup winner Sarah McCormack.

Methodology:

Keywords for each sport were inputted in Google, Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Baidu image search engines and the first 100 images were analysed to determine the number of photos with male and female representing models. These were then converted to percentages and rounded up or down accordingly. Non-binary gender representation did not occur for any of the sports analysed. Illustrations and graphics were excluded.

Are you feeling inspired? Then join our SportsShoes Strava Run Club and become part of our inclusive community.
And for more inspirational tips to become stronger, better and happier, then check out our Motivation category. Because it’s no fun standing still.

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