Anonymously male: Social media avatar icons are implicitly male and resistant to change


When asked to pick a typical human, people are more likely to pick a man than a woman, a phenomenon reflecting androcentrism. Social media websites provide a relevant context in which to study androcentrism since many websites aim to provide users with an ostensibly gender-neutral icon if users do not upload one of their own images. In our first study, 50 male and female online participants (Mage = 35.70) rated whether actual avatar icons from highly trafficked social media websites are perceived as gender-neutral. Using bi-polar scales from woman to man participants reported that overall the icons appeared to be more male-typed than gender-neutral. In Study 2, we investigated whether adding more female-typed icons would discourage or promote androcentric thinking. An online sample of 608 male and female participants (Mage = 33.76) viewed either 12 avatar icons that reflected the over-representation of male-typed icons or 12 that included an equal number of male and female-typed icons. Participants were then asked to produce an example of a typical person. Finally, we measured political ideology on two liberal-conservative scales. We found evidence that exposure to an equal number of male-typed and female-typed avatar icons generated reactance among political conservatives, and thus may have constituted an ideological threat. Conservatives who saw an equal number of male-typed and female-typed icons were twice as likely to come up with a man as a typical person compared to conservatives who saw an over-representation of male-typed avatar icons. Consistent with system-justification theory, these findings show how male-centric thinking is also evident in a seemingly gender-neutral online context.

Social media, gender, avatars, system justification theory, threat
Author biographies

April H. Bailey

April H. Bailey is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Social Psychology at Yale University. Her research focuses on how another’s gender impacts one’s perceptions, judgments, and evaluations of them with a social cognitive orientation.

Marianne LaFrance

Marianne LaFrance is a Professor of Psychology and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Her work broadly focuses on the psychology of gender and the role of nonverbal communication.

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