Sexism and bias pollute cyberspace

August 24, 1994|By David Plotnikoff | David Plotnikoff,Knight-Ridder News Service

Remember the good old days when the information superhighway was a mandatory topic for cocktail-party chat -- say, about six months ago? Here was this shiny, new medium that could level the playing field in interpersonal communications. It could be a place where users would be judged only by their words and the intellect behind those words.

Now here we are, just five minutes into the virtual rush hour, and already that promise is proving to be an empty one for women. Yes, women are driving the digital road in record numbers. But with one exception -- Prodigy -- from small on-line communities to the 20-million-user Internet, it's estimated that more than eight out of every 10 on-line citizens are male.

There are no simple explanations why women are under-represented in cyberspace. As commercial services edge closer to becoming a true mass-market phenomenon, there's a growing awareness that virtual communities mirror the real world, with old assumptions and biases intact.

What's to blame for the gender gap? Users, academics and industry watchers point to an array of social phenomena with roots that extend well beyond on-line. The real reasons may be as fundamental as the differences in the way men and women use language and the way each sex views technology.

Young girls begin getting negative messages about technology, math and science in elementary school. Research shows boys and girls are equal in computer use until about fifth grade. After that, the boys' use rises while the girls' use falls.

By the time many young women reach college, the alienation from tech has become a full-blown estrangement. According to National Science Foundation figures, men receive 75 percent of all computer science degrees. And the higher up the ladder, the worse it gets: Women receive 13 percent to 15 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in computer science and less than 10 percent of the doctorates in engineering. That, in turn, refuels the cycle for another generation of young women growing up without female mentors in teaching positions.

Not surprisingly, out in the working world, the types of tech professions that demand computer literacy -- and often come with Internet access -- still tend to be dominated by men. Technophobia is not an exclusively female disorder -- but women in general do react negatively to technology more often than men. A Dell Computer Corp. poll in the fall questioned 1,000 adults and found 55 percent of the women admitted discomfort with new technology, compared to 45 percent of the men.

Beyond the educational realm, there is the persistent stereotyping of computer users as freakish, socially maladroit, sexually undesirable creatures. Add to that the mass media's sensationalistic coverage of the on-line world's darker side. From Ann Landers' advice column to the Village Voice, the overwhelming message is that cyberspace is populated by cyber-stalkers, lying lotharios and perverts of every stripe. The on-line world is presented as just another place where bad men victimize helpless women.

"I'm a little distressed that the media is focusing so much on the Net and cyberspace as a pickup scene," says Lynn Cherny, a linguist who's studying MUDs and MOOs (user-created role-playing areas of the Internet) in the course of getting her doctorate at Stanford. "The effect of this coverage is being felt strongly. The atmosphere of men on the prowl, scoping for babes, that suffuses some parts of the Net is a bit off-putting to a lot of women."

Harassment is a bona-fide threat to every on-line citizen, regardless of gender. It can range from offensive e-mail (which may be unintentionally offensive because there are few tools in cyberspace to convey irony or sarcasm) to on-line stalking that carries over into real life. But there is no pat definition of what separates harassment from just plain rudeness. The Internet tradition of flaming (posting or mailing hostile messages) tends to make women avoid some of the most vital discussion areas in cyberspace.

Gladys We, a master's student in communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., reported last year that on the Internet, men tend to dominate even the groups devoted to feminism and women's discussions. She pegged the population of the alt.feminism newsgroup as being 11 percent women, 83 percent men and 6 undeterminable.

The bottom line for many women may be this: They simply have neither the time nor the inclination to play around with the machine.

Amy O'Donnell, manager of market research, planning and analysis for CompuServe, says her research has shown that men will often look at their home computers as either hot-rods to tinker with or a challenge to conquer. "Let's face it: Women just want it to work."

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