In addition to purveying cat videos and baby pictures, social networks can provide useful demographic information. A new study finds that worldwide, Facebook use by women is associated with greater gender equality.

Researchers looked at the anonymized data of 1.4 billion users in 217 countries, territories and autonomous regions and calculated the proportion of women and men ages 13 to 65 who actively used the social network. Places with a lower female-to-male usage ratio, such as Afghanistan, were deemed to have a greater “Facebook gender divide” (chart and map). The team also collected World Economic Forum data on countries' gender equality in terms of economic opportunity, education and health. The study found that the smaller a country's Facebook gender divide in 2015, the more economic gender equality increased the following year. In contrast, an increase in economic gender equality in 2015 was not associated with a reduction in the Facebook gender divide during 2016. This finding suggests that a smaller Facebook gender gap is more likely a contributor to—rather than a result of—economic gender equality. The results were published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Ridhi Kashyap, a demographer at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the study, has published a separate map of the Internet gender gap, also using Facebook data. She found that gender gaps in Facebook use proved to be a good measure of gender gaps in Internet use in general; data on the latter are often unavailable. Kashyap says the Internet can provide users with valuable health and employment information and “can also be a great way to enhance skills.” David Garcia, a computational social scientist at the Medical University of Vienna and the lead author of the PNAS study, says Facebook data could help policy makers estimate gender inequality in poor countries and could track its evolution on a daily basis.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Sources: “Analyzing Gender Inequality through Large-Scale Facebook Advertising Data,” by David Garcia et al., in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 115, No. 27; July 3, 2018 (Facebook gender gap data); The Global Gender Gap Report 2016. World Economic Forum, 2016 (education gender gap data)