Denying Internet access to women in the workplace only helps men to maintain their powerbase.

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The Independent Culture
Women are as interested in computers as men, and would play more games if there were more female-friendly plots, claims Brenda Laurel in a recently published study, conducted at UCLA and based on American females.

The study attempts to break the generally held view that women deal with computers reluctantly and use them only as a work tool - though experience in the UK (more than 95 per cent of games buyers and 85 per cent of Internet users are men) would appear to back up the stereotype.

AOL confirms that women make up only 10 per cent of the membership of its family-oriented online service. Internet service providers such as Easynet, Demon and Global all indicate roughly the same figure.

Although the absolute numbers are growing, the percentage of females seems to stay stubbornly at the same level. Rosalind Resnick, the publisher of Interactive Publishing Alert, conducted a similar study and found that women wanted access but were prevented from getting online by their lower income, less time to spend online and too little time to learn complex applications. Time seemed to be the key issue, as many of the women interviewed commented that they want a computer to save them time, not steal it (as often happens when your Web browser crashes, and it takes many minutes to get back to where you were before).

Two-thirds of the women online don't have children. It appears that kids and the Net are mutually exclusive for women, although not for men. A high number of messages posted to AOL's kids' forums are sent from fathers' addresses, indicating that men seem to be able to integrate technology with family time, while women, not knowing their way around the computer, have to delegate that to men.

Access to a PC at home is often problematic, owing to the limited time the computer is free. Most households have only one computer, though they may have two or more television sets and at least two phones. I have noticed that since my niece got her own PC and doesn't have to fight over it with her father, her computer knowledge has increased rapidly. Now she knows more about Excel than most of my friends in the accounting profession, as she uses it to follow the league progress of her favourite basketball team.

Other problems are related to the attitude to computer literacy. Many years ago, when I first tried to surf the Web, a friend told me to "launch the browser". Needless to say I didn't have a clue what he meant, but nevertheless clicked on the new icon on my desktop that he had installed and bingo, I was online.

Since then, I have used that expression on numerous occasions, and without exception my female students have looked perplexed and asked for help, while males clicked furiously at anything that could be the "browser", risking crashing their machines in the process but too proud to ask for help. Women, on the other hand, prefer to ask for help instead of exploring the options, as they fear damaging the machine.

With such an attitude, the only place where women can learn is the workplace. There, if they are lucky, they may have a friendly, helpful "techie" (although some think that would be a contradiction in terms). They can ask and be shown the way around the Net or a new application without having to experiment. Unfortunately, most companies still treat Internet access as a privilege accorded only to top executives. This helps men to maintain their power base in the workplace and denies women the opportunity to get online painlessly.

Considering that UK cyberspace is now relatively well serviced by fashion, grocery and furniture retailers, and that women make most of the buying decisions in the household, it makes me wonder why retailers don't sponsor a "free e-mail for every female" campaign and get us all online. Inside every woman there is a passionate shopper. My Mum is famous for being able to find her way to the right section in any department store in a split second. If only these hunting instincts were applied to the Internet, I'll bet she could hack through the complexity of online shopping in no time.

But there is no way she would explore cyberspace on her own from home, no matter what Brenda Laurel says. Only in the secure environment of her workplace, with many "angels" looking after the networks, others looking after the configuration of her PC, and even others training her up in an easy way, would she have the confidence to explore the new services now available.

Researchers such as Brenda Laurel are not doing women any favours by denying that there is a gender gap in both confidence and computer literacy. Admitting that there is a problem is the first step to solving it. Hiding it under the carpet by being too proud to admit that we lag behind is not going to make us more computer literate. Feminist doctrinaires should finally realise this and focus their resources on dealing with the issues instead of denying them.

So where do we go from there? Last week brought us reports that UK library attendance has dropped by 20 per cent. There were some voices forecasting closure of libraries due to their inability to compete with the Internet. Perhaps the answer is to make libraries centres for computer literacy rather than just literacy. The 21st century will be about using digital information, and our libraries could ensure their survival by helping people (particularly women) move towards full online access.

Otherwise, in the future, our mothers and grandmothers will need have The Independent read to them off the screen. As always, e-mail me at eva@never.com if you have any thoughts about getting women online.

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