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 Gender Issues in Online Communications

 Hoai-An Truong

 with additional writing and editing
 by Gail Williams, Judi Clark and Anna Couey

 in conjunction with
 Members of BAWIT -- Bay Area Women in Telecommunications

 Copyright 1993  Written for CFP 93   Version 4.1

 BAWIT ['bay-wit'], Bay Area Women in Telecommunications, is a group
 of women working with telecom, organized to discuss women's
 professional and social issues and computer networking, including
 industry gender bias. By doing so, BAWIT seeks to advance the state
 of women who use telecom, to provide a higher profile for women in
 the industry, and to encourage women and girls in their exploration
 of computers in general, and in particular, telecom.

 Signed by: Judi Clark, Anna Couey, Lile Elam, Barbara Enzer, Hilarie
 Gardner, M Normal, Naomi Pierce, Nancy Rhine, Rita Rouvalis, Leslie
 Regan Shade, Jillaine Smith, Hoai-An Truong, Sue vanHattum, Gail
 Williams, Donna Zelzer.

 The principal author would like to acknowledge members of BAWIT, and
 Mills College for education on the issues discussed in this paper,
 and also Judi Clark, who proposed the panel on gender issues and was
 instrumental in getting the paper off the ground and throughout the

 Contact information for Bay Area Women in Telecom
 e-mail: [email protected]


 Despite the fact that computer networking systems obscure physical
 characteristics, many women find that gender follows them into the
 online community, and sets a tone for their public and private
 interactions there -- to such an extent that some women purposefully
 choose gender neutral identities, or refrain from expressing their

 The experiences of women online are both personal and political. To a
 certain extent, their causes are rooted in the physical world --
 economics and social conditioning contribute to the limited numbers
 of women online. Additionally, online environments are largely
 determined by the viewpoints of their users and programmers, still
 predominantly white men.

 If network policies and legislation are going to determine access to
 information and participation in public media for this and the next
 generations, it is critical that they reflect and address the
 perspectives of women and people of color, to avoid further
 marginalization of these constituencies.  The following is an
 overview of issues which members of BAWIT feel need to be addressed.
 We feel that these are situations worthy of further investigation and


 The Clinton administration has placed a priority on developing a
 National Information Infrastructure, envisioning that computer
 networks will be the information highways of the future. However, on
 many systems, women comprise between 10 and 15 percent of the online
 population. On electronic bulletin boards or BBSs, which are rarely
 as supervised or monitored as the more well-known online services --
 such as Compuserve, America_nline and Prodigy -- their numbers tend
 to be far lower. Why? And what are the implications of inequities in
 gender representation in the information infrastructure?

 It is likely that economics impact women's online participation to a
 large degree. On average, women's salaries are 40% lower than men's,
 leaving women with less disposable income for computers, modems,
 software, online services and any additional phone charges.

While electronic mail [or e-mail] is fast becoming common in the
 workplace, it is still predominantly used by those in technical
 fields, whether in educational institutions or in business; or by
 those with technical facility or training. Men who use the Internet
 have a higher likelihood of being in an academic, management, or
 technical position offering free access as one of the prerequisites
 of their jobs. Thus, a higher percentage of men have both the
 technical training and subsidized access to participate online than
 women do.

 Additional deterrents to online participation may be attributed to
 women's roles in society. While more women are in the workplace, they
 often are still primary caretakers for their children, and in a
 majority of households, women bear the brunt of household chores.
 Women may find they have less free time to learn to navigate online

 Women in Computer Studies

 Another deterrent to women's entering the computer field or making
 themselves at home on the net is the negative stereotype of the
 socially isolated computer nerd. Women may need help overcoming
 visions of becoming or associating with technology-obsessed nerds and
 adolescents who are seen as likely to populate online systems. This
 has had research attention as a significant reason why females
 students tend to drop out of computer studies.

 Professors tend to call upon and address their remarks to male
 students more often than female students, as several studies show.
 Additionally, there are few opportunities for women to be mentored in
 higher education or in their careers. Executives or professors --
 often male -- are likely to identify with, encourage and mentor
 another male, rather than a female. By itself, lack of attention or
 mentors may not be a deterrent; however, coupled with other social
 factors and discrimination, it often contributes to feelings of
 discouragement and isolation, low confidence and feelings of
 unworthiness, and higher dropout rates.

 Despite the fact that women often use computers in business settings,
 technical roles -- from programming of telecom software to operating
 communications systems -- remain predominantly male. Invitations to
 sysop gatherings addressed "Dear Sir" and including "your wife is
 welcome," customers who ask for a manager when they hear a female
 voice on a technical help call, and the popular culture archetypes of
 computer enthusiasts as male, are continual reminders of common
 assumptions based on gender. Even when female students do as well or
 better than their male peers, they tend to feel less competent. In
 technical fields, the common assumption by both men and by women
 themselves is that women don't do as well as men. Women are then less
 likely to take on projects which may either prove their ability or
 provide additional expertise, because they don't feel qualified.


 Access to online communications is not simply a function of
 economics.  The technical expertise required to establish access to
 online systems, and the interfaces users encounter when they get
 there can be significant deterrents to online participation for
 non-technical users. While graphical user interfaces can
 significantly ameliorate this problem, they are system specific, a
 situation which can hamper access for small or $community
 organizations and lower income individuals who can only afford older
 and non-standard equipment, if at all.

 Studies have attempted to explain the reasons that fewer girls than
 boys pursue technical fields. Some studies indicate that gender
 impacts perception. Network interfaces are typically designed by men;
 if the studies are correct, it would appear that developing
 interfaces that rely on women's perceptive skills in addition to
 men's would impact online participation. Interestingly enough, Les
 Radke, who teaches a computer class at Richmond High, finds that in
 his class boys gravitate towards computer games, while girls use
 e-mail and read USENET.

 Perceived Usefulness

 An even greater deterrent for non-technical users is the perception
 of usefulness. As BAWIT member Donna Zelzer explains: "...Look at the
 automobile. It's expensive, it's mechanical... And, if you make a
 mistake, you can KILL someone. And of course men make fun of women
 drivers all the time. Yet despite these obstacles, millions of women
 own cars and drive them every day. Why? Because they see cars as
 useful and even necessary to their lifestyles. But most women don't
 feel this way about computers or going online."

 Network systems and projects geared to serving non-technical users
 find that education is a tremendous part of their work, and that
 concrete benefits must be demonstrated to overcome a new user's
 investment of time and money to learn to telecommunicate. And what
 are the benefits? Network users often describe virtual community as a
 benefit of being online; professionals and activists find they can
 gather, access, and disseminate information and viewpoints not
 readily available from mass media. Yet while the networks can
 democratize publishing, they also impose additional cost on
 information. Herbert Schiller's "Culture, Inc.," among information
 and space. As the nets become increasingly commercialized, they
 further establish class differentiation between those who can afford
 the luxury of participating in online systems and those who cannot.

 Social Interaction and Gender-Based Perceptions

 A newly created bulletin board in the Bay Area started up a
 conference with a posting comparing women to pets that occasionally
 need to be put to sleep. This type of demeaning communication
 involving women is quite typical of bulletin boards, which may
 provide an outlet for males to share humor they would suppress in a
 mixed setting. This can be a disincentive to participate, especially
 if this is an initial or persistent online experience.

 People will say things online that they will not say face to face. In
 addition, missing elements of conversation, such as facial
 expression, vocal clues, and other conventions have a complex effect
 on online interactions. Additionally there are unresolved
 difficulties in the frank discussion and expression of sexuality
 between men and women, in which intent is often misunderstood.

 An element of this technology is a tradition of sometimes colorful
 diatribes or "flaming". Since women tend to use language differently
 then men do, these highly aggressive language patterns may be even
 more of a barrier to our participation. Styles of communication
 (sometimes referred to as "debate" and "relate" styles) often
 complicate messages. While debating and arguing an issue is the
 normal style for some people, others understand these debates as an
 attack on them, causing them to pull away from the discussion. Being
 sensitive to the style of communication can be as important as the
 actual message being conveyed.

 Deborah Tannen, among other authors and researchers, describes the
 difference in language use between the genders and between different
 families and cultures. Tannen identifies a less direct, more
 inclusive style, designed to avoid arguments and confrontation, as a
 more typically female method of communication.

 Online Harassment

 Many women who use Internet sites, electronic bulletin boards or
 other online services, or even internal company-wide networks report
 receiving invitations and messages of a sexually explicit nature in
 real-time "chats" or via e-mail. These messages are variously
 analogous to obscene phone calls or whistles in the street depending
 on their tone. However, they take on an added annoyance factor for
 women who are paying to utilize the resources of the online
 environment. Additionally, these messages may be experienced
 repeatedly by the same women because there tend to be fewer women on
 most systems. Women looking for information online are often
 surprised to see that a female first name can bring a distracting and
 ultimately expensive volume of unsolicited contact, and give one the
 sensation of being the first female to have arrived at a frontier
 since pay dirt was struck. The problem is pervasive and annoying
 enough that many women choose to switch to non-gender-specific login
 names, for example, or to post to women-only conferences or mailing

 A major obstacle that women have to deal with is that sexual
 harassment is a relatively new concept in our society, and that
 ignoring the situation can be a successful survival strategy in the
 short run. Women may refrain from reporting perceptions of abuse
 because of internalized peer pressure, based on observations of other
 women being labeled "prudes" or otherwise mocked. Or they may hold
 back due to the fear, or anecdotal evidence that charges are not
 likely to be taken seriously by management. Women may not know that
 harassment is by its very nature subjective, and that they may be
 entitled to more privacy than they get.

 "All of the cases I have seen filed involving e-mail or voice mail
 were settled out of court, which says something about the strength of
 the evidence," said Frieda Klein, a sexual harassment consultant, in
 an article in MacWeek dated Dec. 14, 1992.

 Guidelines for Monitoring Online Harassment

 How can we prevent online harassment? The best way to bring this
 about is education on the issues and recognizing when harassment
 occurs. A MUSE role-playing community, Cyberion City at MIT, tries to
 educate its participants with this definition of the problem:

 "Unwanted advances of hostile or forward nature are unacceptable...
 If you think someone might be interested in developing a closer
 personal relationship, it is your responsibility to make absolutely
 sure of this before saying or doing anything that would be considered
 inappropriate in real life. Such inappropriate behavior includes, but
 is not limited to, suggestive remarks; violation of the other
 person's space; forward, intimate or suggestive conduct."

"People on this system are of all ages and backgrounds... Most are not
 here specifically to form intimate relationships, and it is
 inappropriate to assume that someone is so interested unless you have
 received clear indications of it. If you are unsure whether your
 behavior is appropriate, STOP, and ASK. Many people are hesitant to
 say 'go away' in so many words because they do not wish to be rude.
 It is your responsibility to make sure they are saying 'yes' before
 pursuing a close personal relationship."

 Virtual or online harassment does not have a distinct legal
 definition.  Case law has not yet been established for many
 situations, but preexisting harassment and stalking laws may be used
 as guidelines.  MacWeek, an industry publication, suggests the

 "Companies should print guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment and
 distribute them to all employees. Those guidelines should be followed
 up with training."

 "The courts have held that sexually explicit posters hung on walls
 can create a hostile work environment. Similarly, pornographic
 computer programs or screen displays, particularly if visible to
 passers-by, could constitute sexual harassment." "Managers should
 treat any complaints of sexual harassment seriously. The company
 should have clearly enunciated policy of progressive discipline,
 ranging from warnings to terminations, depending on the severity of
 the offense."

 "After receiving complaints, managers and personnel departments
 immediately should seek to stop the harassment and educate the
 employees involved. A company is forbidden by law to retaliate
 against anyone making a sexual-harassment complaint."

 A company, including the network manager, may be held responsible if
 harassment occurs or continues to occur in the office. We would do
 well to find personal definitions in order to identify and address
 problems which arise. It is vital that company managers educate
 themselves and their employees, and have a anti-harassment policy
 that includes online harassment. Awareness of the issue is the best

 Increasing Our Participation: Possible Approaches, Future Directions

 In the wake of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, companies and
 individuals are beginning to address women's issues in a variety of
 ways.  A Silicon Valley company recently arranged an all-day retreat
 offsite for its women employees to discuss gender issues faced by
 women in the computer industry and within the company. Issues
 discussed included glass ceilings, differences in pay, percentage of
 women working at the company, how to achieve success in technical
 fields, and dealing with career and home lives. The dialog continues.

 Across the bay, Berkeley Mac Women, a women's Macintosh users group,
 formed completely independently within weeks of the creation of
 BAWIT. At meetings, the all-women format has proven to be a more
 comfortable environment for women computer users to ask questions.

 Stacy Horn, who runs Echo BBS, wanted to ensure that the board be
 gender-balanced. Using affirmative action efforts such as telecom
 tutorials, outreach for women, and creating an environment that women
 would feel more comfortable in, she brought the number of women users
 up to about 50 percent. Seniornet, an online network of senior
 citizens has about a 50-50 ratio of women to men. Online services
 which stress community such as Seniornet, Echo and the WELL (the WELL
 has between 15-20% women users) attract higher numbers of women.

Women banded together to support one another on Santa Monica PEN, a
 city system. This account is from an article called "What's Really
 Happening in Santa Monica" in the December issue of IMPACT! from the
 Boston Computer Society Social Impact Group and Public Service
 Committee, by Pamela Varley:

 "PENners quickly discover[ed] that they must contend with people who
 feel entitled to hector mercilessly those with whom they
 disagree....When the system started up, women -- who were greatly
 outnumbered by men -- had problems with harassment....By the summer
 of 1989, the few women on line were fed up and ready to drop out."

 "In response to harassment,...the women on PEN banded together in
 July 1989 to form a support group called PEN Femmes. The group makes
 a point of welcoming women when they begin to participate in PEN
 conferences.  Harassment has subsided as more women have become
 active in conferences."

 System interfaces need to be evaluated in terms of user preferences.
 Since research indicates that women tend to learn and navigate
 somewhat differently than men, increased participation of women as
 software and system interface designers is an important goal.

Simpler interfaces are of benefit to all users, but especially to
 those without technical training. As the BMUG BBS switched to using a
 simpler electronic messaging system with a Mac-like interface,
 enthusiastic users genezFted four times the number of messages as on
 the old BBS. The familiarity of the new interface attracts women Mac
 users both with and without technical backgrounds who never or rarely
 used the old one.

 Rita Rouvalis, a BAWIT member, observes that "a list of Net
 Celebrities I saw recently included only *3* women -- none of them
 for technical merit.  Anita Borg, who runs the Systers [electronic
 mailing] list, was not included. When I was taking computer science
 courses in college, I knew that Niklaus Wirth wrote Pascal and
 Modula2 and 3, and that Kernigie and Richie developed C -- but I had
 no *idea* that Grace Hopper [inventor of COBOL] existed until her
 death." Remembering women pioneers is one way to transform the
 stereotypes of computer innovators.

 Managers of communications networks and BBSs have many strategies to
 try in making women welcome. Employing women as technical support
 staff, or in other informed customer service roles, and encouraging
 women to volunteer information to one another can help to take some
 of the challenge out of learning a new set of skills. Special
 approaches such as women-only tutorials, information campaigns and
 rate subsidies are tools which may help systems approach a gender


 How we address the issue of barriers to wider participation of women
 has long-ranging impact on other issues such as racial harassment
 versus inclusion, and the participation of gays, and the disabled.
 Much is made of the tremendous potential electronic mail and
 conferencing have to revitalize participatory democracy, but
 intelligent, motivated affirmative action will be needed if racial
 and gender barriers are to come tumbling down. Affirmative action can
 be done on the institutional level, and it can also be done on a
 grassroots level, by friends.

 Suggested Readings

 First of all, read and communicate with women online.

 There is as yet little published about women and telecommunications.
 Meanwhile, the general experience of women in computing is a backdrop
 worth exploring. BAWIT has made a commitment to continue assembling a
 bibliographic collection online.

 Samplings from Available Research

 Benston, Margaret Lowe. "Feminism and System Design: Questions of
 Control." The Effects of Feminist Approaches on Research
 Methodologies.  Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 1989,
 pp. 205-223.

 Brusca, F. and Canada, K. "The Technological Gender Gap: Evidence and
 Recommendations for Educators and Computer-Based Instruction
 Designers." Educational Technology Research and Development, 1991,
 39, no. 2:43-51.

 Carmichael, Joan. "In a Different Format: Connecting Women,
 Computers, and Education Using Gilligan's Framework." Masters thesis.
 Concordia University, Canada, 1991.

 Durndell, A. "Why Do Female Students Tend to Avoid Computer Studies?"
 Glasgow College, Scotland: Research in Science & Technological
 Education, 1990 Vol. 8 (2) p. 163-170.

 Erlich, Reese. "Sexual Harassment an issue on the high-tech
 frontier." MacWeek, December 14, 1992, p. 20-21.

Edwards. Paul. "The Army and the Microworld: Computers and the
 Politics of Gender Identity." Signs v.16, n.1 (1990):102-127.

 Edwards, Paul. "Gender and the Cultural Construction of Computing,"
 adapted from "From 'Impact' to Social Process: Case Studies of
 Computers in Politics, Society, and Culture, Chapter IV-A," Handbook
 of Science and Technology Studies (Beverly Hills: Sage Press,

 Fish, Marian C.; Gross, Alan L.; Sanders, Jo S. "The Effect of Equity
 Strategies on Girls' Computer Usage in School." Computers in Human
 Behavior. CUNY, Queens College, 1986 Vol. 2(2) 127-134.

 Frissen, Valerie. "Trapped in Electronic Cages?: Gender and New
 Information Technologies in the Public and Private Domain: an
 Overview of Research." Media, Culture and Society v. 14 (1992):31-49.

 Greenbaum, Joan. "The Head and the Heart: using Gender Analysis to
 Study the Social Construction of Computer Systems." Computers &
 Society v.20, n.2 (June 1990):9-17.

 Halberstam, Judith. "Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the
 Age of the Intelligent Machine." Feminist Studies v.17, n.3 (Fall

 Harrington, Susan Marie. "Barriers to Women in Undergraduate Computer
 Science: the Effects of the Computer Environment on the Success and
 Continuance of Female Students." Dissertation. Oregon: University of
 Oregon, 1990.

 Kirk, D. "Gender Issues in Information Technology as Found in
 Schools:  Authentic/Synthetic/Fantastic?" Educational Technology, Apr
 1992, 32;$28-31.

 Kirkup, Gill. "The Social Construction of Computers: Hammers or
 Harpsichords?" Inventing Women: Science, Technology, and Gender. Ed.
 Kirkup; Keller. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992, p. 267-281.

 Kramarae, Cheris; Jeanie Taylor. "Electronic Networks: Safe For
 Women?" The Electronic Salon: Feminism Meets Infotech: in connection
 with the 11th Annual Gender Studies Symposium. Speech Communication,
 and Sociology, March 1992. [This is a draft of a paper prepared for
 the Gender, Technology and Ethics conference to be held in Lulea,
 Sweden, June 1-2, 1992].

 Kramer, Pamela E.; Sheila Lehman. "Mismeasuring Women: a Critique of
Research on Computer Ability and Avoidance." Sign3hv.16, n.1

 Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre. Addison-Wesley, 1991.

 Lawton, George. "The Network is the Medium." MacWeek, December 14,
 1992, p. 20.

 MIT Computer Science Female Graduate Students and Research Staff.
 "Barriers to Equality in Academia: Women in Computer Science at MIT."
 MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence
 Laboratory, February 1983.

 Nelson, C. S. and Watson, J. A. "The Computer Gender Gap: Children's
 Attitudes, Performance, and Socialization." Journal of Education
 Technology, 4:345-3, 1990-91.

 Ong, Aihwa. "Disassembling Gender in the Electronics Age." Feminist
 Studies 13 (Fall 1987):609-626.

 Pearl, A.; Pollack, M. E.; Riskin, E.; Thomas, B.; Wolf, E.; Wu, A.
 "Becoming a Computer Scientist: A Report by the ACM Committee on the
 Status of Women in Computing Science." Communications of the ACM, Nov
 1990, v33 n11 p47(11).

 Perry, Ruth; Lisa Greber. "Women and Computers: An Introduction."
 Signs v. 16, n.1 (1990): 74-101.

 Rakow, Lana. Impact of New Technologies on Women as Producers &
 Consumers of Communication in the U.S. and Canada. Paris: Unesco,

 Spertus, Ellen. "Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?"
 Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, 1991.

 Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand, New York: Ballantine
 Books, 1990.

 Turkle, Sherry; Seymour Papert. "Epistemological Pluralism: Style and
 Voices Within the Computer Culture." Signs v. 16, n.1 (1990):128-157.

 van Zoonen, Liesbet. "Feminist Theory and Information Technology."
 Media, Culture and Society v. 14 (1992):9-29.

 Varley, Pamela. "What's Really Happening in Santa Monica." IMPACT!,