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Gender Issues in Online Communications

Article by Hoai-An Truong, Gail Williams, Judi Clark and Anna Couey in conjunction with members of the Bay Area Women in Telecommunications Group (Version Number 4.2, 1993). This essay discusses how gender "follows" women into on-line communities and sets a tone for their interactions online. BAWIT focuses on key issues in this situation and suggests possible solutions.

By 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

Version no. 4.2 Copyright 1993

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, Barbara Gersh, M Normal, Naomi Pearce, 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 process.


Despite the fact that computer networking systems obscure physical characteristics, many women find that gender follows them into the on-line 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 opinions.

The experiences of women on-line 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 on-line. Additionally, on-line 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 research.


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 on-line population. On electronic bulletin boards or BBSs, which are rarely as supervised or monitored as the more well-known on-line services--such as Compuserve, America On-line 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 on-line 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, on-line 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 on-line than women do.

Additional deterrents to on-line 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 on-line systems.

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 on-line systems. This has had research attention as a significant reason why females students tend to drop out of computer studies.

Even when female students do as well or better than their male peers, they tend to feel less competent. 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. In technical fields, a common assumption by both men and by women themselves is that women do not perform 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 on-line communications is not simply a function of economics. The technical expertise required to establish access to on-line systems, and the interfaces users encounter when they get there can be significant deterrents to on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line."

Network systems administrators and project managers 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 on-line; 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 other publications, describes increasing privatization of public information and space. As the nets become increasingly commercialized, they further establish class differentiation between those who can afford the luxury of participating in on-line 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 on-line experience.

People will say things on-line 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 on-line 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.

On-line Harassment

Many women who use Internet sites, electronic bulletin boards or other on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line 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 lists.

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 On-line Harassment

How can we prevent on-line 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 on-line 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 following:

"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 on-line 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 on-line harassment. Awareness of the issue is the best deterrent.

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 off-site 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, Bay 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, 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 on-line network of senior citizens has about a 50-50 ratio of women to men. On-line 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 generated 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 Kernighan 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 balance.


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 on-line.

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 on-line.

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, forthcoming).

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 1991):439-459.

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." Signs v.16, n.1 (1990):158-172.

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, 1991.

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!, December 1992.

Contributors : Hoai-An Truong, Gail Williams, Judi Clark, Anna Couey
Last modified 2005-02-11 11:35 PM

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