NETWORK : A home on the Web

"The Web is an unfriendly place for women." Is this statement fact or fiction? Well, it's both, really. It is often said that women are better at communicating than men, and the Web is a perfect place to exchange information, empower users through furthering contacts and knowledge and, sometimes, just have a chat.

But where do you start? Just a few months ago, as a woman taking her first tentative steps through a mire of Web sites, newsgroups and search engines, you could type in "women, arts", say, and come up with a few unlinked sites of varying levels of usefulness. You would also end up entering sites that contained only pornographic pictures and get rather depressed if what you were after was something quite different, visually.

All that has changed for women online with the launch of WWWomen - The Premier Search Directory for Women Online. An initiative from founders Sue Levin and Kathleen McMahon, both experienced professionals in the computer and Internet industries, WWWomen is dedicated to making life easier for women online. Its main focus is to cut out the big boys' search engines and let you look at sites of interest for women from an at-a-glance menu.

But WWWomen is not just a search engine. Ms Levin and Ms McMahon are keen to develop a female-friendly atmosphere online. Users can trawl through linked sites or hang out in chat rooms, participate in forums on everything from health to politics, or get constantly updated news and views.

There's even an online newsletter, with features such as "What Community Means to Women Online", from Stephanie Brail, founder of Amazon City, the first city for women on the Internet. In her piece, Ms Brail explains why she is interested in more initiatives like WWWomen being set up. "To women especially, who, like myself, may have felt lost in a profession filled with men, finding other like-minded women is not just a question of fun, it is a question of survival."

The design is simple, clean and vivid - no prizes for guessing that pink is the dominant hue throughout on the site - and Ms Levin and Ms McMahon are keen to stress that they welcome all points of view.

WWWomen is sticking to the open access feel of the Net. Anyone can suggest a URL, and men are not banned. They may feel a little uncomfortable in some of the sites, but they may also learn something about how women operate in business through the exchange policy of WWWomen. Tap on to "Science and Technology" and you can e-mail an engineering question direct to a female engineer; enter the list of more than 100 sites under "Working Women" and you can network with other businesswomen across the worldn


Sophia Chauchard-Stuart