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Cross-Gender Communication in Cyberspace

A graduate research paper that analyzes the effect of computer mediated comunication (CMC) on communication across gender.

A graduate research paper done in the Department of Communication
Simon Fraser University
by Gladys We

Paper for CMNS 855
April 3, 1993

Copyright 1993

Permission is granted to redistribute electronically but not for profit. This paper may NOT be (re)printed without permission.

Computer mediated communication (CMC) is rapidly turning the world into Marshall McLuhan's "global village." It is an almost miraculous medium where people can communicate individually with each other, mediated by nothing more than computers and wires. The contrast with previous broadcast media is obvious; in CMC, there are no editors or censors. The social implications of CMC are vast, from its potential ability to overthrow centralized control of information to its potential ability to help people, no matter what their gender, race, or physical appearance, communicate with each other with fewer prejudices and misunderstandings than any other medium in existence. In many ways, the online world, named "cyberspace" by William Gibson, has its own culture, morals, and expectations, but in just as many ways, it replicates the biases, contradictions, and prejudices of our society.

Many people have claimed that CMC improves communication between women and men. Research has been done on how professionals interact in this electronic environment. Cynthia Selfe and Paul Meyer found that high status individuals of either gender (status was marked by their position and number of publications) tended to send more messages than low status ones (Selfe and Meyer, 1991). When the group gave participants a choice of anonymous postings, the same people tended to post, although a few more low status participants sent in questions and comments.

Research has also been done on how CMC helps women and non-native English speakers in educational environments. Beryl Bellman, Alex Tindimubona and Armando Arias, Jr. discuss how Latin American women, when allowed to post anonymously in class, contributed "strong assertive remarks," even though "they did not engage in heated debate" or critiques in their face-to-face classes (Bellman, Tindimubona and Arias, Jr., 1993).

Research continues to be done on these more formal and task-oriented worlds of professional and educational online interactions. However, it seems that relatively little work has been done on how women and men communicate with each other in online social environments. There are many places in the Internet for women and men to socialize. In Usenet, the largest public area of the Internet, people get together in newsgroups to duscuss subjects as diverse as rec.pets, alt.tv.ren-and-stimpy and soc.penpals. For people who want to role-play in another persona, or even another gender, there are MUDs (Multi-User Domains), and MUSHes (Multi-User Shared Hallucinations). There are mailing lists for alternative music fans, singles, and for Tolkien addicts. In short, the Internet is full of virtual spaces where women and men can meet and talk.

However, there are several problems with the nature of cross-gender interactions online. For example, I had noticed, in my initial forays into Usenet, that relatively few women posted in most of the social newsgroups. I went to the three feminist newsgroups and did a participant count, assuming that most men wouldn't be interested in feminism, and expecting that I would find a few more women participating. For the two unmoderated newsgroups, I was proven wrong. Only in soc.feminism, amidst accusations of censorship, were there comparable numbers of postings from women and men.

Alt.feminism participant count (303 responses)
  • 11% women
  • 83% men
  • 6% undeterminable
Soc.women participant count (292 responses)
  • 13% women
  • 78% men
  • 9% undeterminable
Soc.feminism participant count (47 responses)
  • 53% women
  • 40% men
  • 7% undeterminable

Obviously, as Cheris Kramarae and Jeannie Taylor report, "In almost any 'open' network, men monopolize the talk" (Kramarae and Taylor, 1992).

But communication between women and men has always been problematic, to say the least. Robin Lakoff wrote, in Language and Woman's Place, about the differences between how girls and boys are taught to communicate. She found that girls and boys literally learn different languages as they grow up. Girls are taught a more passive voice and boys emerge from their "rough talk" stage with a more forceful, active voice (Lakoff, 1975). More recently, Deborah Tannen, in You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, finds that the cross-gender communications gap is as vast as any cross-cultural communication gap. Simply put, women and men don't communicate well with each other, even though they may both be speaking English (Tannen, 1990).

Some of these communication problems and social assumptions are carried over to social interactions in CMC. But are all of them? When I began my research project, I wanted to find out how women and men felt about communicating online. I wanted to hear what they thought about the differences between communicating online and face to face. And I wanted to hear the stories behind the statistics from the women who found that electronic communication allowed them to speak their minds to the men who said that it eliminated thoughts of sex from their missives.

Methodology:

I sent out a questionnaire (Appendix A) to several different newsgroups and electronic mailing lists (Appendix B). The responses that I have received have been illuminating. Most of the people who took the time to respond to my questionnaire were helpful and supportive, sharing their experiences and thoughts candidly. While the number of responses that I've received (25) is not statistically significant, I feel that the respondents' voices are representative of many people in the electronic community. In the following pages, I have indicated whether the speaker is a man or a woman, as gender does have some influence on the types of online experiences that people have, and on how they have interpreted that experience. (Ironically, this structure removes the gender-neutral feeling of most online interactions.) I also made the editorial decision to correct spelling mistakes, unless they added to the "charm" or the para-linguistic aspects of a reply.

The Questionnaire

Question 1: In your experience, do men and women communicate with each other differently online than face to face? (Yes or No)

The "yes" and "no" answers I received from women and men were very similar in number:

  Women Men Total
Yes 10 (91%) 12 (86%) 22 (88%)
No 1 (9%) 2 (14%) 3 (12%)

Most people answered that men and women are able to communicate far more easily online than face to face.

One man wrote, about his online friends: "Face to face it is possible that I would speculate about any or all of these women from a gender oriented perspective, but online this never occurs and I am able to relate to them strictly as persons."

One woman wrote, "I have been involved in arguments that would not have been possible face to face as the people I was arguing with would no doubt have descended to male posturing early in the proceedings if they hadn't been forced to write and think through (well, partially, anyway) their responses." Another man added, "Women get heard more because they can finish a thought without being interrupted. Also men tend to deal with the content of what women say rather than dismissing it because it comes from a woman. This is both because the culture of the net places extremely high value on "rational" (or seemingly "rational" ) discourse and because it's impossible to use nonverbal communication to assert dominance. This is not to say that sexism doesn't exist; it's just harder to get away with. ... In many discussions unrelated to sexism or women's issues I see women taken more seriously than I think they would be if the communication were face to face."

Both women and men felt that women had more of a "presence" online and that it is easier for women to make their voices heard online than in a face-to-face conversation where, as one man said, "women [are] able to drive their point home without the familiar patronizing/trivializing dismissal characteristic of many face-to-face encounters."

There are two sides to the freedom and anonymity found online. On the one hand, as one woman commented, "Men are more open online than face-to-face ... Men freely give online hugs and kisses, which you don't see in face-to-face contacts as much."

On the other hand, as one man said, in his experience on the MUDs, people tended to "become more obnoxious because they are hiding behind anonymity." He added, "I'd say things in public that I wouldn't say face to face because I was hiding behind a computer screen--most of these people would never know who I really was." Another woman felt that men "show much less concern about the usual social constraints ... perhaps ... because online communication feels more anonymous. ... After the first time I posted to [a newsgroup] an individual emailed a 'welcome to the group.' After a short conversation about a political issue, I got, out of the blue, a request from him for an exchange of nude photos." Another woman added, "in muds if you have a female name you immediately get jumped all over (figuratively)!" And a man had noticed that, in Compuserve CB, "whenever a women-like handle comes online or joins a channel, she always has more 'welcomes' than a person with a male-type handle."

There are other anecdotal problems with CMC that my respondents did not discuss. For instance, some women report that their suggestions are ignored as much in online conversations as in face-to-face ones. As well, "flaming," a CMC term for the posting of angry messages, is an online phenomenon which tends to be associated with men. Hoai-An Truong writes:

Since women tend to use language differently than 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 (Truong, 1993).
Question 2: When you're communicating online, are you aware of the gender of the person with whom you're communicating? (Yes or No)

  Women Men Total
Yes 8 (73%) 9 (64%) 17 (68%)
No 3 (27%) 5 (36%) 8 (32%)

Roughly the same percentage of women as men were aware of gender. Several of the respondents contextualized their answer to this question: if they were communicating in a professional environment, they reported being less aware of gender than if they were communicating in a social environment such as a feminist discussion or newsgroup. Two women responded that they were more likely to respond to a posting if it came from a woman than a man.

Question 2a: Do you write your responses differently for women than for men?
  Women Men Total
Yes 5 (45%) 4 (29%) 9 (36%)
No 5 (45%) 10 (71%) 15 (60%)
No Answer 1 (9%) - 1 (4%))

Two women found that they were more at ease when talking with other women. The first wrote, "If I'm talking to a woman ... I'm freer about expressing my feelings and talking about my own life experiences. In responding to men I tend to confine myself to a debating mode." The second wrote, "I'm still more guarded with men than with women, for very simple reasons - I'm more at home with women, and the things that women choose to talk about. I may share some interests with men and we can chatter away about them, but I share a *reality* with women."

One man wrote, "I tend to 'pull my punches' more with women than with men. (Which I don't see as being more personally condescending, it simply represents how I see women will interpret such, i.e., I assume that women will take criticisms more personally than men will and that, for example, making a fool of some women on the NET will result in more negative responses by third parties than doing the same to a man.)"

Most of the men (71%) responded that they replied similarly to postings, whether replying to women or to men. A higher percentage of women (45%) than men (29%) felt that they wrote differently for women than for men. One man reported that, even in a more formal classroom setting, many women adopted male aliases to give feedback about the class. He wrote, "This use of male names in order to be heard demonstrates that women are more aware of gender in electronic communication to the point where they will hide their gender for fear that it will interfere with the effectiveness of their communication."

There are probably several other reasons for women to be more cautious about what they write to men. Online sexual harassment continues to take place, and CMC, stripped of most other communication cues, can very easily be misconstrued; a joke, misinterpreted, taken as a come-on. One woman commented about a certain amount of "worry about being attacked and/or hit on by the men."

Question 3: Do you think that women communicate differently online than face-to-face?

  Women Men Total
Yes 6 (55%) 8 (57%) 14 (56%)
No 4 (36%) 4 (29%) 8 (32%)
Unsure 1 (9%) 2 (14%) 3 (12%)

A woman wrote that women "are more likely to have that feeling of intimidation [about the computer world] but they are more likely to express that feeling of intimidation rather than just sitting quietly and feeling bad. The whole thing, I feel, is healthy and cathartic." A man felt that "A shy woman *might* be a bit more inclined to talk more when she cannot see an actual face, only typed characters on the screen." Another woman thought that women "get to be more active when communicating online. Because they don't have to act 'feminine' as expected in daily life."

One woman found that women's interactions with each other online is very similar to face to face experiences. "It's such a delight to realize that the online nature of the communication is VERY SIMILAR to the very familiar experience of communicating with women face2face. ... Women tend to talk about very personal things. Periods, cramps, labor pains, etc. ... very personal issues are constantly being broached, and women of all types eagerly contribute their own experiences and opinions. It is very similar to the coffee clatch, or my own experiences with my girlfriends."

One man found it easier to talk to women online than face-to- face. "Face-to-face, women tend to be more chatty and loquacious. They tend to be shorter, so one is 'talking down' to them (literally, even if one tries not to have that be a factor). There could be mild sexual overtones that complicate communication or at least are distracting."

Another man pointed out "I think that all people communicate differently online than face-to-face." Several people agreed, saying that people with speech impediments or obvious physical handicaps find online communication easier than face to face communication.

Not knowing anything about someone allows people to have conversations based on intellect alone (and English skills), without being influenced by whether the other person is attractive, or not; too old or too young; has purple hair, or none; is in a wheelchair, or is obese. Some people who have been prejudiced against because of the way they look, or their gender, find the physical anonymity of computer mediated communication (CMC) liberating, and would not want their correspondents to find out more about them beyond their sparkling wit.

Question 4: Communication face-to-face, and even by telephone, is gendered because of physical cues such as dress, age, voice, etc. These cues are not transmitted online. How does the absence of these cues affect you?

One woman, who had described herself as small and "cute," answered, "If someone sees me saying something 'macho' or using profanity, the contrast with my appearance lets me sometimes use these to good effect. There have been several times, though, when I've gotten dressings down for these on the net or in email. Not that this was necessarily undeserved, it's just that it wouldn't happen face to face."

Another woman finds that "women may communicate differently because this type of communications allows them to be as direct as possible without running such a high risk of sexual discrimination, particularly if her gender is not clear until the end. ... The lack of the gendering of communication can allow me to make bold statements without having to worry about how my gestures or voice might falsely render them."

A third woman wrote, "the absence of those cues means, for women, the freedom to express ideas outside of the prison of appearance." Another woman agreed: "I feel freer to express ideas and consider new and different points of view. I feel that I have more control over my communication environment, online, and yet without being denied access to the resources and opportunities. Historically, for women to feel safe or comfortable, they have been cloistered. In the networld, we have access to all the same resources that the men do."

CMC allows people to experiment with different personas and "presentation of self" (Goffman, 1959) in relative anonymity and safety. One man thought that "women feel more free to engage in persona creation. ... A friend in Texas is normally a very quiet, almost painfully shy person. On the net she becomes confessional, prolific, acerbic, but especially very very vocal." One woman related how one of her male friends, "also very shy around women ... eventually went into acting."

Two fascinating stories came from women who met their (eventual) husbands online. It does seem paradoxical that text-based communication, through a computer screen and telephone lines, can be incredibly intimate, but people can become acquainted faster online than in face to face contacts. As one woman said, "it is like making a friend in hyper-drive. One advances beyond small talk very quickly. Communication can be when it is convenient for each of you and more often (than say, someone you meet only once in a while)."

Question 5: How important is gender to you in the presentation of yourself online? (On a scale of 1-5 where 1 is not important and 5 is very important)

  Women Men Total
(1) 1 (9%) 7 (50%) 8 (32%)
(2) 2 (18%) 1 (7%) 3 (12%)
(3) 4 (36%) 3 (21%) 7 (28%)
(4) 1 (9%) 1 (7%) 2 (8%)
(5) 3 (27%) 2 (14%) 5 (20%)

Women tended to feel that their gender was somewhat important to very important in how they presented themselves online (36% rated it 4 or higher). For most of the men, their gender was relatively unimportant (57% rated it 2 or lower).

Question 5a: How important is gender to you in the presentation of others online? (On a scale of 1-5 where 1 is not important and 5 is very important)

  Women Men Total
(1) 3 (27%) 5 (36%) 8 (32%)
(2) 3 (27%) - 3 (12%)
(3) 1 (9%) 4 (29%) 5 (20%)
(4) 1 (9%) 1 (7%) 2 (8%)
(5) 3 (27%) 3 (21%) 6 (24%)
n/a - 1 (7%) 1 (4%)

Most of the respondents, whether male or female, found that gender was relatively unimportant in how others presented themselves online (64% rated it at 3 or lower).

The results from questions 5 and 5a are unclear. The question was, as one correspondent pointed out, "verrry broad," and probably confusing. Even though I am unable to draw any general conclusions from these replies, I include them to maintain a sense of continuity in this report.

Question 5b: How are your online experiences of gender different from your face-to-face experiences?

One man wrote, "I can't view on-line women as potential dates/sex partners. ... When I talk to a new person on the net, I don't care who they are or what they are like. But when I meet a new person in real life, I think about whether they are a nice person, will they like me, and could we become friends.

Another man wrote, "the absence of these cues allows me to eliminate gender considerations more easily. I can block them out with effort when they interfere, as they do in my interaction with some women, but online it is much easier to do."

Analysis

Many different types of interactions take place online. When the contact is professional, as several respondents noted, communication is seen as relatively free of gender cues. When the contact is social, however, there are may be as many ways of communicating as there are individuals. Some women prefer flirting with men; others prefer the company and emotional support of other women. Some men felt that it was easier to get to know women online; others distrusted the shifting nature of online personas.

On the surface, it would seem that most people feel that cyberspace tends to be friendly to women. It allows women to adopt more active personas, and to speak on a "level playing field" reduced of gender cues. However, as one man said, "try using a woman's handle online someday and see how many 'hello's you get as compared to your regular handle (if you're a male, of course!)." As Hoai-An Truong writes, women often have "the sensation of being the first female to have arrived at a frontier since pay dirt was struck" (Truong, 1993). I have also observed that sexist comments and jokes, and the use of the universals "man" and "he" exclude women from participation. And when women speak up, they may be actively harassed. One woman reported, "In responses to my postings he sent email calling me 'hairy-legged feminazi' ... and did lots of innuendos about the probable deficits in my personal life." It is obvious that face-to-face patterns of thought and interaction are replicating themselves in cyberspace, despite the many advantages that CMC offers for equal speech.

In this summary, I have only included the more representative thoughts of my respondents. Several respondents sent me anecdotes and examples taken from their experiences with the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or with gender-switching on MUDs. I also heard from people who had made met girlfriends, or eventual husbands, online. Many of their answers were, unfortunately, only tangentially relevant to my research, so they have not been included in the questionnaire results. The answers do, however, point to a phenomenon which does need further investigation. CMC, originally considered cold and alienating (Walther, 1992), has become, in Marshall McLuhan's terms, a "cool" medium, one which is "high in participation or completion by the audience" (McLuhan, 1964). People become highly emotionally involved in their online interactions. Some people meet and fall in love online. Participants in "flame wars" (exchanges of angry postings) report, anecdotally, that their adrenaline levels increase as if they'r preparing for a physical battle.

Questions also arise about the effects that CMC will have on face-to-face interactions. Will the directness of online communication help people in their face-to-face interactions? Gerard van der Leun, in the premier issue of Wired, describes how a previously "shy and retiring" woman, after flirting as "This is a naked lady" online, gradually became "her online personality lewd, bawdy, sexy" (van der Leun, 1993). Many other net anecdotes relate how shy people have experimented with different personas, and then incorporated them into the presentation of themselves in everyday life (Goffman, 1959).

Computer mediated communication is a fascinating extension of the ways in which human beings already communicate. It has the potential to be liberating, and it has the potential to duplicate all the misunderstandings and confusion which currently take place in interactions between women and men in everyday life. The choice of directions is not being made deliberately, but is being made in the thousands of daily online interactions, the choices of ways of speaking, and of subjects, which are gradually shaping, as a river slowly carves a canyon, the culture of cyberspace.

Bibliography

Bellman, B., Tindimubona, A. and Arias, A. Jr. (1993). Technology Transfer in Global Networking: Capacity Building in Africa and Latin America. In L. Harasim (ed.), Global Networks: Computers and International Communication. Massachusetts: MIT Press. Forthcoming.

Benston, M.L. (1988). Women's Voices/Men's Voices: Technology as Language. In C. Kramarae (ed.), Technology and Women's Voices: Keeping in Touch. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 15-28.

Benston, M.L. (1989). Feminism and System Design: Questions of Control. The Effects of Feminist Approaches on Research Methodologies. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 205-223.

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

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Harasim, L., ed. (1993). Global Networks: Computers and International Communication. Massachusetts: MIT Press. Forthcoming.

Kramarae, C. (1988). Gotta go Myrtle, Technology's At the Door. In C. Kramarae (ed.), Technology and Women's Voices: Keeping in Touch. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kramarae, C. and Taylor, J. (1992). Electronic Networks: Safe For Women? The Electronic Salon: Feminism Meets Infotech: in connection with the 11th Annual Gender Studies Symposium.

Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper Colophon Books.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: New American Library.

Rush, R.R. and Allen, D., eds. (1989). Communications at the Crossroads: The Gender Gap Connection. New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Selfe, C. and Meyer, P.R. (1991). Testing claims for on-line conferences. Written Communication 8:2 (April), pp. 162-192.

Tannen, D. (1990). You Just Don't Understand, New York: Ballantine Books.

Truong, H-A. (1993). Gender Issues in Online Communications. Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, San Francisco, March 1993.

Turkle, S. (1988). Computational Reticence: Why Women Fear the Intimate Machine. In C. Kramarae (ed.), Technology and Women's Voices: Keeping in Touch. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

van der Leun, G. (1993) This is a Naked Lady. Wired 1, 74 & 109.

Walther, J.B. (1992). Interpersonal Effects in Computer-Mediated Interaction: A Relational Perspective. In Communication Research 19, 52-90.

Appendix A: Research Questions

Gender communications questionnaire

I'm a graduate student at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada), studying online communication. The question that I'm researching is the impact of computer networks on communication between the sexes. Specifically, I'm looking into how relations between men and women are affected by computer-mediated-communications. I'd appreciate hearing from you (women and men) on these questions:

1. In your experience, do men and women communicate with each other differently online than face-to-face? (Yes or No) a. If yes, then in what ways? If no, then why not? b. Please give an example or examples from your own experience, including a description of the circumstances in which your example(s) occurred. (ie. usenet, email, muds, etc.) 2. When you're communicating online, are you aware of the gender of the person with whom you're communicating? (Yes or No) a. Do you write your responses differently for women than for men? b. Please give an example or examples from your own experience, including a description of the circumstances in which your example(s) occurred. (ie. usenet, email, muds, etc.) 3. Do you think that women communicate differently online than face-to-face? If so, in what ways? (ie. more or less active?) a. Please give an example or examples from your own experience, including a description of the circumstances in which your example(s) occurred. (ie. usenet, email, muds, etc.) 4. Communication face-to-face, and even by telephone, is gendered because of physical cues such as dress, age, voice, etc. These cues are not transmitted online. How does the absence of these cues affect you? a. Please give an example or examples from your own experience, including a description of the circumstances in which your example(s) occurred. (ie. usenet, email, muds, etc.) 5. How important is gender to you in the presentation of yourself online? (On a scale of 1-5 where 1 is not important and 5 is very important) a. How important is gender to you in the presentation of others online? (On a scale of 1-5 where 1 is not important and 5 is very important) b. How are your online experiences of gender different from your face-to-face experiences? c. Please give an example or examples from your own experience. Thanks for getting this far! Now there are only two easy questions: 1. Are you male or female? 2. In which newsgroup or mailing list did you see this questionnaire?

Appendix B: List of newsgroups and mailing lists for this questionnaire

Usenet Newsgroups

alt.feminism
Unmoderated newsgroup on women and feminism.
soc.women:
Unmoderated newsgroup on women and feminism. Content is very similar to alt.feminism, and many messages are cross-posted to both newsgroups.
soc.feminism:
Moderated newsgroup on feminism. Only messages which are approved by the moderators are posted.

Mailing Lists

Comgrads:
List for discussion of issues relevant to communication graduate students.
IAMCRnet:
A service of the International Association for Mass Communication Research. Members are professionals in communications.
Peter Gabriel:
mailing list for discussion of the music of Peter Gabriel.
Sappho:
mailing list for lesbian and bisexual women. No men may join.
Tomi Amos:
mailing list for discussion of the music of Tori Amos.
Usenet.hist:
private mailing list for the discussion of the history of usenet.
Contributors : Gladys We
Last modified 2005-02-11 11:14 PM

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