Telecommunities '95

[Rapid Contents] [Conference Home Page] [Program Information] [Proceedings]

Democracy, Women and the Internet

Ms. Susan Simmons, Association for the Promotion and Advancement of Science Education

The Internet, in its simplest form is a communications medium. It is a warehouse of information from the physical world, including letters, publications, music, video and so forth, harnessed in one electronically accessible place, cyberspace. Through the Internet, we can interact with family, friends and colleagues in distant communities, research a specific topic by visiting on-line libraries and universities or peer into museums and public organizations by visiting their on-line sites. In fact, there is very little that we do in the electronic world that we do not already do in the physical world. What is different however, is that we can do these things easily, from our homes, place of work and public institutions by using three physical objects, a computer, a modem and a telephone line. In effect, what we are doing is bringing the world in rather than moving out into the world.

Much of what we hear today regarding the Internet focuses on technology, access and the numerous places we can visit. It is rare, that we discuss styles of communication and the information we are accessing. Communications style, or voice, and the content of the information we are receiving are key issue for a democratic electronic society. I say this for two reasons: 1) communication is to the Internet what a heartbeat is to humans, it is the pulse that keeps us alive and 2) communication in North America is gendered: women and men generally communicate in different ways, presenting and presented as different beings through these communications. "Research on gender and language reveals that female language strategies invariably emulate the subordinate, non-aggressive role of women in Western society. And, language about women does no better" (Mulvaney, 1994).

So why is it that many of us maintain the belief that the Internet, "holds promises of a more participatory democracy"(Mulvaney, 1994). If the physical world is gendered and for many women inequitable, then how is it that the cyberworld is genderless and to some, seen as equitable. While the Internet hardware and software arenít of course gendered, the way in which the Internet is constructed, the language we use to describe it, the messages we communicate through it, are. The Net is unquestionably the product of a gendered society. This paper highlights some of the issues that have surfaced regarding womenís use of the Internet, our involvement in itís development and some specific actions that we can taken in order to build an equitable electronic society.

I have divided this paper into three sections, each of which represents a specific aspect of Internet life. First, I review the hardware component of the technology, that is, telephone lines, modems and computers in relation to women getting on-line. Second, I examine the experiences of women who are currently on-line including samplings of information they have been sent or received. Finally, I identify specific actions required by the Internet world in order to increase womenís participation in the evolving electronic community.

Getting On-Line--communication lines & service providers, modems and computers

Many of todayís problematic and political Internet discussions focus on Internet accessibility. Definitions of access range from a "hole in the wall", where you connect your modem, to net literacy, where you know how to use the hardware, can access the software and work with mindware (or content). From these discussions, I have uncovered a variety of access issues from a womanís perspective.

First and foremost, there are three key pieces of netware that we need to access the Internet: 1) a communications line & service provider, 2) a modem and 3) a computer. Although these three items may change as time goes on, in todayís world, they are the current means to achieving basic Internet access. Associated with each of these tools is, of course, a price tag. Resources cost money that many women donít have. "On average, womenís salaries are 40 percent lower than menís, leaving women with less disposable income for computers, modems, software, on-line services and any additional phone charges" (Truong, 1993).

With communications lines, cost concerns revolve around consistent and constant pricing. That is, women are not prepared to be charged by the minute (nor do they wish to pay additional costs for accessing various publications). Price structures needs to be consistent so women do not have to calculate every move we make on the net in terms of cost. In a recent survey by Interactive Publishing Alert sixty-one percent of the female respondents polled stated they would be unwilling to pay extra to subscribe to an on-line publication; most said they wanted it included in the price of the on-line service they subscribe to already (Resnick, 1995). Charging for Internet access by the minute or by each and every publication, inhibits womenís access to the Internet. In turn, womenís abilities to communicate technologically as effectively as men, and to freely discover and exhibit information, are compromised. As information becomes a valued commodity, and the Internet the means by which we obtain and sell this commodity, women risk further marginalization if they are financially ill-equipped to participate in global electronic communities.

Modems represent an additional economic barrier for women. Although modem prices are decreasing with the development of newer and faster models, there is still a cost factor involved. When the time comes to make the decision whether to buy a modem or new clothes for the kids, chances are woman will pick the latter. Additionally, the majority of women do not have a great deal of disposable income, and many women, who may view modems as toys, do not place them on the top of their disposable income shopping list. Further, modems are getting faster, and faster modems cost more money. A combination of increased cost for higher-end equipment and womenís lack of financial resources hinder women from fully participating on the Internet.

Computers represent a two-step stumbling block for women accessing the Internet. In addition to the obvious economic barrier, there exist socially-constructed differences in male and female attitudes toward computers and computing technology. In general, females and males use computers and computing in different ways and are interested in them for different reasons. Computer interest and attitude may impact menís and womenís Internet usage and has most certainly affected the Internetís development.

Fewer women than men receive Bachelors degrees in computer science (where many of our Internet developers first learned the tricks of the trade). Women received 35.7% of the degrees in the field. (Frenkel, 1990) Women represented 29.9% of the masters recipients and 14.4% of all computer science Ph.D recipients; within a year this number declined by 3.5% (Frenkel, 1990). Out in the work force, the statistics are no different. The National Science Foundation "report on women and minorities, although women represent 49% of all professionals, they make up only 30% of employed computer scientists" (Frenkel, 1990) and at this point in time, it is the computer scientists who are doing a great deal of work in the area of Internet development and without a doubt they are predominately male.

Until very recently the majority of net users were people with computing backgrounds. Interestingly, the gender gap that exists in the field of computer science is close to that which we see in cyberspace. A recent survey conducted by Matrix Information and Directory Services in Austin Texas showed a 30% female Internet usership. The Graphic Visualization and Useability Centerís 3rd WWW User Survey reported a 15.5% female World Wide Web usership. This figure is perhaps even lower than general Internet services such as e-mail, because of the higher-end equipment needs, although no specific studies have been done in this area. It is also an area where we see many Internet developers, crafting the future. In addition, the Centre also reported a high percentage of users of both genders with backgrounds in computing and / or education. These findings give us insight into Internet culture and lead us to wonder if people, women in particular, are not dialing in because they see the Internet as a communication device for computer scientists.

That is not to say that women are not interested in nor using computers. Look at most offices in any city in North America and chances are you will see a computer, and behind that computer, you will see a woman, busy, working at an automated task. "Task" is the key word. When we examine how and why males and females use computers, a key difference in approach and attitude becomes apparent. "While men may be passionate about computers, women use computers as tools for solving problems (Frenkel, 1990)." In other words when women do not see computers as efficient tools, they lose interest. This gendered difference in approach to computer use may, in part, explain why women dial up less often than men.

In many instances, the Internet is promoted to users as a recreational vehicle not a tool. This view is unappealing to women for the simple reason that many just do not have time to play. Much of the writing we read about the Internet uses technology jargon, such as electronic highway, surfing the net, browsers, words which can easily be associated with recreation, or time on oneís hands. "The two commonly used metaphors for network use, Ďsurfing the Internetí and Ďcruising the information highwayí, are potentially neuter but can also easily be assigned macho overtones" (Cunningham, 1994). Netscape has recently added a new graphic to its netsearch page which has the picture of a racing car and reads "Test drive a Netscape server, 60 days unlimited mileage."

Besides the view of the Internet as a recreational vehicle, the Internet and computers are consistently associated with games. In fact, there are few ads from service providers that do not include the word "game". For women, who are often working and rearing children, there is little time for game playing. This image of the technology may not be fostering womenís appreciation for the Internetís potential as an efficient and effective communications tool.

It should come as no surprise to us how this view of the Internet has evolved. Computer software designers, including Internet software designers are predominately male and "on-line environments are largely determined by the viewpoints of their users and programmers, still predominantly white men" (Truong, 1993). "When a group of educators with software design experience was asked to design software specifically for boys or for girls, they tended to design learning tools for the girls and games for the boys. When they were asked to design software for generic "students," they again designed games -- exactly as though the students were boys (Huff and Cooper, 1987)." It is not difficult to see the impact of this same inclination on the Internet, its associated software and even the content we see on-line. The majority of Internet developers, users and information providers are male. What we have developed is a computer networking system that has and is being developed, marketed and used by a majority male audience. If we are to take full advantage of the technology available to us we must break this cycle.

Life On-Line

If I had a dime for ever time someone told me that inequality does not exist on-line simply because users have no physical presence, I would be a millionaire today. The idea that a personís physical appearance is all there is to their gender identity is preposterous. Further, the notion that "womenís issues" do not exist on the Internet because it is genderless is absolutely ridiculous. Unless there is a magic equity button in the infrastructure that I am not aware of, there is no reason for women and men to believe that life on-line will be any different than life off-line.


On-line life is plagued with the same social ills as off-line life. If you are not convinced of this then why did one woman receive an untraceable e-mail bomb containing hundreds of sexual and violent messages--the mildest of which was Shut up, bitch, after apparently offending someone in an Internet newsgroup (Peterson, 1995). And why are women asked questions like "When was the last time you really enjoyed sex? Was it goooooooddd?" (Peterson, 1995) when they join in public discussions? And what about experiences like, "After the first time I posted to [a newsgroup] an individual e-mailed a Ďwelcome to the group.í After a short conversation about a political issue, I got, out of the blue, a request from him for an exchange of nude photos (We, 1993)".

There is an on-line culture, and along with this culture there are definitely dos and doníts in terms of conduct. Culture is a combination of "knowledge, beliefs, customs, and morals which is shared by members of a society" (Karp et al., 1989). Alongside culture there are "cultural expectations: fundamental rules in accordance with which persons normally act" (Karp et al., 1989). The e-mail bomb recipient was punished for not following the rules on-line. We can only hope that she did not have to pay for every single threatening e-mail message she received and that the senders will not harass her any further.

Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community", believes the problem will diminish with time. "It will be regarded as uncool. There are people who do uncool things, (but) thatís not the medium, thatís a larger social issue" (Peterson, 1995). This argument is common within the Internet world and in many ways is used to avoid the issues at hand. At some point, we must recognize that the medium is a tool and can be used as a powerful means of solving problems or as a way of perpetuating and even amplifying them. By not addressing some of the issues that surface with the induction of a new form of communication into society, we are at risk of perpetuating and amplifying social ills. For women, this is threatening. Ignoring issues never made them go away in the past, and it is highly unlikely that it will make them go away in the future.

There are many other issues that arise for women (and men) on-line, including how to handle pornography, children accessing certain types of information, the lack of resources available to females and so forth. What we need to focus on are healthy ways to debate these issues on-line and off rather than carrying on as though they do not exist.


The number one way in which anyone can increase womenís Internet participation is to talk to us and find out what we need and want from on-line services. From there, people can begin to move forward to create a gender-friendly cyberspace. Interactive Publishing Alert recently polled a number of women on a variety of on-line issues and came up with the following recommendations. I have elaborated on these ideas as well as provided concrete examples of how we can all begin to put them into practice.

Create a (safe) sense of community: Creating a safe sense of community for women is vital to our on-line survival. This comes as no surprise, as it is something women and men work hard to do in the physical world. There are two steps that the Internet community can take in order to ensure safety. The first, is to create secure sites and services for women. This may be done by continuing to work on software packages such as Net nanny, that prevent children from accessing certain types of information or by creating private, member only sites and services for women. The second, is to help bridge the gap between the physical and the electronic worlds. Working with computers it is often difficult to imagine how a computer could be the pulse of a community. Women need evidence that computers are tools for bring people together not pushing them apart. When we talk about the Internet, letís not speak of it as though it has a life of its own and is driving us forward. Instead, speak of people driving communities forward and the Internet as a vehicle for doing so.

Donít assume that women are interested only in "womenís issues": In the same instance, donít assume that men are not interested in "womenís issues" on-line. Approximately 80% of the users of the alt.feminism news groups are men (We, 1993). Both women and men are interested in a number of services, again, the key is to ask.

Provide a service that saves women time: One of the major barriers for women getting on-line is time. This includes not only the time to learn how to use the technology, but also the time to find information. If we are going to encourage more women to use the Internet, then saving-time-once-on-line is key. Once we have demonstrated to women that using the Internet will save them time, they will take the initiative to learn the technology. An example of a time-saving service, presented to me by a colleague, is the on-line grocery flyer. Almost every day, when I check my mail box, I find it stuffed with flyers from neighborhood grocery stores listing all the latest sale items. It takes quite some time for me to go through each and every flyer to figure out where I will purchase each of the items I need. Why not put the flyers on-line, organized by item, with a reference to where the item is on sale. It would then be much quicker for me to figure out where I am going to buy each item. From this Internet service, I am saving not only time, but possibly even money.

Make on-line services and publications easy to navigate: Moving from the physical to the electronic can be a difficult transition. Donít assume that users can maneuver through sites without instruction. When creating a web site, make it possible for the viewer to move through the site a number of different ways. Users will want to follow the path that makes the most sense to them. To be sure you are reaching all of your audiences needs, test your web site out on women and men.

Advertise! Women need to know whatís out there: Knowing what is out there is key. Often when you speak to someone who is new to the Internet scene, the most challenging questions you are presented with is "What do I use it for?" The Internet community can answer this question by naming specific services that are available. For example, rather than say, "you can use it to find information," try "you can find a certified and registered baby-sitter for your kids by dialing into the local Kid-Care Center." Make the example as concrete as possible.

Keep billing simple: What we mean by this is donít charge us by the minute or by the publication. Charge us a flat fee. If we are distracted by having to calculate how much each and every minute of time costs while we are on-line, we will not be able to enjoy our on-line experience.

Connect new users with on-line mentors: Having someone you can turn to with questions is a fundamental part of building an on-line community. It is precisely this exchange between people that is at the heart of all community.

In addition to these recommendations there are a number of other ways in which we can maximize Internet use by women and men and in effect, the Internetís potential. As you use the Internet, in whatever personal or professional sphere, make sure that you use it equitably. Only in so doing will you use it effectively.

1995 APASE, all rights reserved APASE executive director and publisher Catherine Warren, Permission to reproduce excerpts must be obtained from APASE The Association for the Promotion and Advancement of Science Education Suite 200 - 1111 Homer Street, Vancouver, BC, V6B 2Y1


(please note: all documents listed below were found on the Internet)

Truong, Hoai-An. Gender Issues in Online Communications, with additional writing and editing by Gail Williams, Judi Clark and Anna Couey in conjunction with Members of BAWiT -- Bay Area Women in Telecommunications Version no. 4.3 Copyright 1993

Cottrell, Janet. Iím A Stranger Here Myself: A Consideration of Women in Computing. Computing and Information Technology, 238 Waterman Building, The University of Vermont. Burlington, VT 05405-0160.

Frenkel, Karen A. Women and computing. (includes related article on a study of gender-related studies of computing) (Cover Story)Computer Select, April 1991 : Doc #23738 Journal: Communications of the ACM Nov 1990 v33 n11 p34(13) Full Text COPYRIGHT Association for Computing Machinery 1990.

Steen, Douglas (Dug); Wilson, Deborah; Andonian, Mari. Educatorsí Use of the Internet: A Survey - If you have any questions, please contact Dug Steen at this address:

Regan Shade, Leslie. Gender Issues in Computer Networking, McGill University, Graduate Program in Communications, Talk given at: Community Networking: the International, Free-Net Conference, Carleton University, Ottawa,, August 17-19, 1993: Copyright 1993 by Leslie Regan Shade.

Mulvaney, Becky . Copyright 1994 . "Gender Differences in Communication: An Intercultural Experience". Department of Communication, Florida Atlantic University

We, Gladys. Cross-Gender Communication in Cyberspace , A graduate research paper done in the, Department of Communication, Simon Fraser University, (Internet:, April 3, 1993

Koch, Melissa. No Girls Allowed, Portions Copywrite, 1995, OíReilly and Associates, Portions Copyright 1995, Houghton Mifflin Company

Peterson, Julie. Sex and the Cybergirl: When Mother Jones stepped out onto the electronic superhighway, so did a few cyber pigs.

Resnick, Rosalind. What do Women Really Want (On-Line, That Is)? Interactive publishing Alert. Executive Summary. Interactive Publishing Alertís 1995 Survey of Women Online.

Kaplan, Nancy and Farrell, Eva. Weavers of Webs: A Portrait of Young Women on the Net. The Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture

Cunningham, Sally Jo. Guidelines for an introduction to networking: a review of the literature. The Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture. July 26, 1994 Volume 2 Issue 3. Dept. of Computer Science. University of Waikato .Hamilton, New Zealand

Balka, Ellen & Doucette, Laurel. THE ACCESSIBILITY OF COMPUTERS TO ORGANIZATIONS SERVING WOMEN IN THE PROVINCE OF NEWFOUNDLAND: PRELIMINARY STUDY RESULTS. The Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture. July 26, 1994 Volume 2 Issue 3. Womenís Studies Programme,. Memorial University of Newfoundland

For more information, please contact:

Ms. Susan Simmons at

Mail your comments and questions about these web pages to