It's a man's cyberworld

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IT'S a flaming man's world on the Internet, as women are being put off by male domination, hostility, coarse language, sexual harassment, and offensive e-mail.

Flaming - Internet jargon for uncensored hostility - deters women so much that many have adopted men's names to avoid harassment, an international conference on Internet research will be told this week.

Even the metaphors for the Internet - information superhighway, cyberspace and the electronic frontier - are masculine, says Dr Janet Morahan-Martin, Professor of Psychology at Bryant College, Rhode Island.

And women who do not take part in Internet activities but whose partners do, risk becoming cyberwidows, victims of virtual affairs, cybersex and terminal love.

Research shows that only nine to 20 per cent of Internet users in Europe are women, and users are most likely to be male, as well as wealthier, better educated and younger than the general population. In Japan and the Middle East female usage drops to less than five per cent.

Ms Morahan-Martin says that the male dominance of the Internet has its roots in the earliest users, primarily male scientists, mathematicians and computer hackers.

"This kind of culture can be discomforting and alien to females. An analysis of `netiquette' norms found tolerance of free speech extended to flaming and even sexual harassment. A large number of users report that they have witnessed or been subject to offensive language or harassment on line, and many women report that they use a male or gender neutral name to prevent unwanted advances," says Ms Morahan-Martin, who is one of the main speakers at the Internet conference at Bristol University this week.

She says that in on-line discussion groups men monopolise conversations, talk more, and interrupt women. "When women try to have equal footing, they are ignored, trivialised or criticised by men. Some research suggests that when women speak more than 30 per cent of the time they are perceived as dominating."

She says that most computer games, where many children are first introduced to computers and where they hone their computer skills, reflect male themes of adventure, action, violence, sport and competition. "At least two thirds of computer games are sold to and for boys, and parents buy twice as many computer-related products for sons than daughters," she points out.

She also believes that male domination is perpetuated in images of the Net. "A recent Sony ad showed a picture of one boy pushing another in a soap box. The copy read, `Fifty years ago it was who can build the best soap box, now, it's who can build the best web site.'

"What is striking is the lack of female presence. The toy has changed from a mechanical one to an electronic one but by implication the Internet is the latest boy's toy."

She warns that use of the Internet has important economic, educational and social benefits, and that people who are excluded will also be excluded for the benefits.