Look out boys, women are getting wired

"Why are there so few women on the Internet?" I asked the members of an online discussion group. This was how Lenny replied: "For the past six thousand years our members have been using what is now referred to as biofeedback techniques to elevate fetal exposure to male hormones for men, lesser [sic] for women and vice-versa. The result has been much greater and easier domination of the male sex over the female sex."

Perhaps he was answering my question - though not in the way he intended. Why would women want to associate with the likes of Lenny?

The gender split on the Internet is hard to pin down. Traditionally, estimates have suggested 90 per cent of users are male, although there are indications that the balance is beginning to change. CompuServe, the private online service, reckons the figure is now 83 per cent, while one surveyestimated that, at the end of last year, men made up no more than two-thirds of the online audience.

Determining the sex of those online is not straightforward. Many households pay for their Internet account in the name of a male family member, even though one or more women may also be using the account. Others, particularly those with access to the Internet through work or college, may have genderless online identities such as UBG05B@mmu.ac.uk.

Yet it is clear from wandering around the Usenet Newsgroups - the Net's discussion areas - that the great majority are dominated by men. The only exceptions are the likes of misc.kids.pregnancy and alt.wedding. This might sound like stereotyping - but it is true.

The bias owes much to the origins of the Net. Originally designed for use by the US Defence Department, it was taken over by the academic community - and particularly by university computer science departments. With women making up a tiny proportion of these departments (17.4 per cent of undergraduates, 1 per cent of professors in the UK), it is not surprising that the Internet has developed a locker-room atmosphere.

The language can be aggressive, and those that fail to understand unwritten rules of behaviour face ridicule. In a typical newsgroup discussion, participants accused each other of "baseless idiocy", of being a "potentially violent psychopath" and using an argument "not worth the toilet paper it is wiped on". This is not only true of academic newsgroups: even rec.craft.winemaking had its share of sniping.

Judith Wusteman, a computer science lecturer at the University of Kent says she has felt discouraged from using the Internet because of the "drivel" she finds on it. "Why would anyone want to communicate in such a dysfunctional, anti-social way?" she asks.

Women have also been put off by having to wrestle with the technology. This has become easier recently, but setting up the software connection can still be a problem. A physics graduate friend recently spent several days trying to sort out how to set up a connection to gain access to the World Wide Web before phoning the helpline in frustration.

But for men, technical incomprehensibility has been one of the attractions. Jonathan Miller, editor of the Delphi Internet service, compares surfing the net with tinkering with the car. "A lot of early male interest has been because it is like a really complex machine," he says."While women complain that it doesn't matter how good the content is if they have to learn such a counter-intuitive system."

The World Wide Web has made navigation of the Internet much easier: you just click to get from one site to another. But here too, it is men's interests that appear to be served best. Penthouse and Playboy have been quick to stake their place on the Web, with "interactive" magazines.

Women have also been scared off the Net by the stories of online harassment. Vicki Merchant, chair of the National Harassment Network and until recently harassment officer at the University of Central Lancashire, says UK universities have seen many cases of online harassment. Circumstances vary; some women have been e-mailed porn, others have found themselves the subject of pornographic fantasies. In live discussion areas, such as the Internet Relay Chat, women have frequently had to fight off unwanted advances from male users.

Earlier this year, a US student was arrested for writing rape fantasies about a fellow student on the Internet and remains in jail pending trial for transmission of a threat. There's been outrage from much of the Internet community at a"virtual" crime being given a real punishment, but the distress of female victims has been very real.

Sara Edlington, a writer, was bombarded with obscene e-mails after using the FidoNet network of bulletin boards and nearly logged off from cyberspace for ever, frightened by the abuse. "It's a psychological thing, more than anything," she says. "You don't know these guys from Adam, they could be living next door to you."

Sadie Plant, a lecturer in cultural studies at Birmingham University, says women need to remember they are physically safe. The attacks they face on the Internet will only be words, and women can be as abusive back without fear of physical attack.

She believes the aggression will wane. "As women have a reason to use the Internet, that will change," she says. "But given we're starting from this ridiculous point of male arrogance, the only options are to lie down and take it or to fight back."

Eva Pascoe, co-founder of the Cyberia Internet cafe in London, compares the Internet with visiting another country. By learning local customs, visitors avoid confrontations. "It's like going to Greece," she says. "You can immediately feel the heat, but it could be months before you really understand the culture." She suggests new users "lurk", the Internet jargon for watching and reading without contributing, to learn what is appropriate behaviour.

For those who manage to avoid the hazards of cyberspace, there are real benefits. "The Internet is a fantastic research tool for whatever women are interested in," says Josephine Starrs of the Australian Internet art ensemble VNS Matrix. If you want advice on Greek vegetarian dishes or stock market information, someone, somewhere, has the answer.

Others have made genuine friends through the Internet. "Living in Oz, being able to send and receive e-mail has enabled us to network all over the world," says Starrs.

"More women should get on the Internet, and quickly," says Eva Pascoe. "Legislation is now being decided and there are so few women around, we don't carry enough weight in the debate."

The female-friendly Net

Usenet newsgroups:

The following are areas where women contribute in significant numbers. Insults do sometimes fly but not as often as in the more male newsgroups. Fainthearted cybersurfers should avoid alt.feminism and soc.women, as they are a favourite haunt of misogynists looking for a fight.

alt.wedding

misc.kids

misc.kids.pregnancy

rec.food.cooking

rec.food.chocolate

rec.food.veg.cooking (for vegetarians)

rec.crafts.textiles.sewing

rec.crafts.textiles.misc

rec.crafts.textiles.needlework

rec.pets.cats

rec.pets.dogs

rec.pets.birds

Mailing lists:

Subscribers to e-mail mailing lists receive information on the topic as e-mail and can e-mail questions and comments to the list, for distribution to all the other members. You need no more than an e-mail address and no charge is made.

breast cancer: send a message which says "subscribe breast-cancer " to LISTSERV@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA

menopause: for the MENOPAUS list, send a request for a subscription to LISTSERV@PSUHMC.HMC.PSU.EDU

systers: for women working in IT, but renowned as an excellent source of information and support. Mail requests to Anita Borg at SYSTERS-REQUEST@DECWRL.DEC.COM.

CompuServe Forums:

Hollywood Hotline (type GO HOLLYWOOD) - celebrity and movie news, trivia, reviews

UK TV Soap Previews - preview of events in the week ahead on the UK's soaps (UKSOAPS)

UK What's On Guide (UKWO)

Astrology Charting (ASTROLOGY) - for a collection of astrological facts relating to any chosen event

Biorhythm Charting (BIORHYTHM) - for finding out what your emotional, physical and mental state will be at any point in the future

European Research Centre (EUROLIB) - business and financial information on more than 2 million European companies

Cancer Forum (CANCER) : information and support for people with cancer, their friends and relations.

Earth Forum (EARTH): For those looking for online environmental activism.

Food/Wine (FOOD): for the discussion of ... er ... food and wine

World Wide Web:

Cyberia cafe pages (a good general starting point) : http://www.easynet.co.uk/pages/cafe/cafe.html

National Council for Educational Technology (advice for parents on Internet usage and other technology):

http://ncet.csv.warwick.ac.uk/index.html

Fashion: http://www.charm.net/jakec/

Guide to women's health: http://asa.ugl.lib.umich.edu/chdocs/womenhealth/womens_health.html

Tourist information: http://www.city.net/

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