Girls are trailblazing on the field and the Internet

Photo by Ashima Pargal on Unsplash

From Naomi Osaka to Mary Kom, women are carving out a place for themselves in the male-dominated world of sports. They are trailblazing the way for a generation of girls, setting world records, fighting for equal pay, and fielding trollers on social media.

Representation matters and social media is a powerful tool, providing voice and visibility for female athletes. Social media platforms raise the profile of many women athletes and teams.

For example, Twitter provides an opportunity for the U.S. women’s team to broaden its fan base. Simply re-tweeting has a huge impact on the club, players, and game visibility. The women’s football games have gone from a small viewership to a global audience, streaming live on Facebook and BBC.

The impact doesn’t stop there. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram give female athletes an opportunity to amplify their voices and grow their presence. For example, Ramla Ali, a Somali-born female boxer, shares her struggles in a male-dominated sport and inspires others. Naomi Osaka, ranked #1 in women’s tennis, pulled out of the French Open citing the need for a mental health break. Her decision has fueled conversations online around destigmatizing mental health and the double standards that women athletes face.

Even outside of professional athletes, the Internet mobilizes and connects girls and women with a passion for sports and fitness. Campaigns, such as Always’ #LikeAGirl and #ThisGirlCan, celebrates the strength and achievements of girl athletes. Other hashtags like #girlswhocycle or #girlswholift have created a global community of girls, sharing pictures and stories of their favorite sport, routines, and achievements.

Yet, the Internet is not always a safe place. Female athletes face three times more abuse than men. This includes comments that are highly sexualized, explicit, sexist, and belittle their sporting abilities. Despite these odds, female athletes forge a place for themselves online.

In order to better understand the strength and celebration of such positive online spaces, Quilt.AI analyzed 23,333 Twitter posts, mentioning 11 campaigns and 6 sports hashtags. We ran the posts through our bespoke AI analysis tool, tailored to read Sports-related content. This helped us understand how girl-athlete-centered hashtags empower girls around the world. The team also looked at 1.1 million searches related to girls’ sports and fitness in the last three years. This is what we found.

Interest in women's and girls’ fitness is growing

We analyzed 1.1 million searches related to girls in sports. In 2017, fitness-related keywords had a higher volume of searches (64%) than sports (36%). In the next three years, searches declined for fitness keywords but grew for sports. For example, from 2017 to 2018, sport-related searches doubled. From 2018 to 2019, fitness keywords declined by 10% while sports keywords grew by 10%.

Our analysis also showed a difference in 2020, as keywords related to women’s fitness and sports had the highest rate of change. The fitness category saw a ROC of +42% while sports was +108%. This could be due to the lockdown forcing girls and women to work out at home or take up outdoor activities.

A deeper dive into category keywords reveal that there are nuances.

In fitness, the keywords that grew the most are:

  • Home workout for women (121%)
  • Fit women body (102%)
  • Dumbbell workout for women (77%)
  • Ab workout for women (40%)

In sports, we found that keywords that grew include:

  • Girls baseball (407%)
  • Girl skating (264%)
  • Girls skating (204%)
  • Boxing girl (158%)

Thrill, community, entertainment, and bonding bring girls together

An overall analysis of Tweets with campaign and sports hashtags showed a breakdown of sentiments. The top 4 segments we identified in tweets are:

  • Adrenaline (41%): Girls’ sports as a thrilling experience that gets you at the edge of the seat while watching, or sets your heart racing while playing.
  • Healthy Lifestyle (23%): Sports as a good sweat for maintaining an active lifestyle.
  • Entertainment (11%): Girls’ sports are an absolute delight to play or watch.
  • Peacebuilding (9.5%): Sports means putting differences aside due to a shared love of the sport or a collective focus on winning.

Though these tweets had the highest volumes, there were shifts pre-and-during the pandemic. For example, tweets related to Peacebuilding doubled from 6% to 13% before and during the pandemic. There were other slight shifts that reflect people’s attempt to use sports as an outlet during the pandemic. Tweets related to sports grew for mental wellbeing (2%), resilience (1%), adrenaline (2%, and escapism (1%).

Campaigns can bring girls together.

Multiple studies illustrate that introducing girls to sports empowers them. Brands and advocates are using such initiatives to demonstrate the strength of girls. Our analysis of campaigns found that some have more coverage than others. Specifically, #WomenWorthWatching, #ThisGirlCan, and #LikeAGirl had the highest percent of mentions.

A deeper dive into campaign and sports tweets also highlighted different segments. When it comes to Campaigns, 43% of the tweets are around Adrenaline and talk about girls’ sports as a thrilling experience to play or watch. On the other hand, a majority (51%) of hashtags relate to sports-centered around a healthy lifestyle.

The most-used sports hashtag — #girlswholift — gives us further insight into how women and girls discuss fitness with each other:

  • Use my routine (40% ) — Girls are sharing their or other’s workout routines, feeling healthy after lifting, or benefits of lifting.
  • You can do it (23%) — Support others to start working out and persevere through hard times.
  • Brands that empower (17%) — Promote brands such as protein powder, local gyms, and workout attire.
  • Celebrate me, you, and her (11%) — Celebrate personal or other’s achievements including professional athletes.
  • We are all in this together (9%) — Sharing tweets of their teams or calling on other women who lift as well.

This difference shows how hashtags can galvanize people around various messages. Campaigns support girls to celebrate their strength. Such tweets include mentions of famous female athletes or personal sports achievements. Sports hashtags, however, cover a wide range of reasons such as sharing one’s workout routine, encouraging other girls, and documenting their sports’ journeys.

The Power of a Girl

In the last year, online misogyny has increased in various countries. However, sheer ingenuity and community building by girls and their allies are making a dent and hopefully reverse this trend. Carving out space for themselves through sports and online platforms is just one way.

In the future, organizations and brands aiming to empower girls can leverage the use of these hashtags in their respective ways. For example, if it’s to encourage girls to build a healthy lifestyle then sports hashtags to share resources will be more effective.

The Internet must continue to be a tool that allows girls and women athletes to unabashedly celebrate their strength and voice for billions to hear.

Write to anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai to learn more about our work in gender equality.

Quilt.AI creates culturally intelligent AI products to drive impact at scale. More here: https://quilt.ai