Indian women less affected by toxic Instagram

But the reason sucks

Good Morning! A big hello to readers who signed up this week. This is The Signal’s weekend edition. Our story today is on the declining proportion of women in workplaces and its impact on data and data-driven applications. Also in today’s edition: the best reads from the week. Happy weekend reading.


A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published Facebook’s internal documents which revealed that its photo-sharing platform Instagram triggered toxic social comparison. Hidden in the report — based on Facebook’s own 100,000-person survey across nine tech-savvy nations of the world — was an interesting nugget on India.

While in other nations this social comparison was worse for women, it was men who had it worse in India. And that’s not because Instagram is any less toxic for young women here. Facebook researchers found the women in India formed a small proportion of the workforce and did not have varied life experiences or social circles — perks of jobs and professional settings — to compare themselves with. They simply didn’t have enough stories to share.

The researchers traveled to the country in 2019 to do in-person interviews to dive deeper. After all, Facebook and Instagram have the largest number of users in India at 340 million and 180 million respectively. They found that personal and financial independence and success were key factors in the variation.

“In the countries where men experience more comparison, women generally comprise a smaller proportion of the paid workforce,” the researchers wrote.

We know that over the years, the sex ratio in India has been improving though it is still very much skewed in favour of males. What is less known is that the sex ratio of the young population has been sliding since 1991. A study, Youth in India, by the Central Statistics Office forecast it to reach 904 in 2021 and 898 in 2031.

We also know that employers have been talking a lot about improving gender equality. But data shows otherwise. Not only is it not looking good, but it is also getting worse.

Government data released in September shows that the proportion of women working in managerial positions in India is below 19%. Even in cities and towns where opportunities and freedom to work are more compared to villages, there are few — just over 21% — women managers. The gender skew permeates new businesses as well. Only five out of 136 unicorn founders in India are women.

Not only is the ratio of working women low in India, but it is also among the countries where the share is falling. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index for 2021 ranked India at 140 out of 156 countries, a fall by 28 notches. Women were about 43% of India’s workforce in 1993-94. That dropped to just above 31% by 2011-12. The World Bank estimated that more than 20 million women stopped working between 2004-05 and 2011-12 alone. India was the lowest-ranked among South Asian nations and the only nations that were ranked lower globally were the Arab countries.

Fewer women at workplaces and in decision-making roles means social and economic power will remain imbalanced, influencing the design of new products, services, policies, and institutions to suit the tastes and preferences of men. The absence of women presents twin technology-related problems because systems and algorithms depend on data.

First, the skew may be reinforced as more and more companies deploy artificial intelligence and machine learning to humanize bots that interact with humans. They are struggling to deal with real-world biases creeping into machines as is seen in AI bots and voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

For instance, a 2020 study found that one in four people in the UK felt men had dibs on a job and thought men made better business executives than women did. In India, that figure was 69%. If there are not enough women, data will also be inadequate.

Second, automation and Covid-19 will reduce the overall number of existing jobs, putting women at a disadvantage as more available jobs are likely to go to men. More men are also likely to return to workplaces than women will, as work from home becomes a post-pandemic norm. That will create a further shortage of relevant data.

The Facebook researchers noted that although body concerns are relatively low in India compared to other countries, appearance comparison is still high. “We need to understand appearance-based content shared in India better and its impact on viewers,” they said. That cannot happen without better data from more women.

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