WOMENAID INTERNATIONAL

HOW ARE WOMEN USING THE 
INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY?


The Women's Networking Support Program of APC has recently conducted a survey on women's experiences with electronic networking.  Early results are from 30 countries in Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Zimbabwe), Asia and the Pacific (Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines), Eastern Europe (Croatia, Russia Federation, Ukraine), Western Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, UK), Latin America (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay), Western Asia (Jordan) and North America (Canada and United States).  Initial findings indicated that women are increasingly active in using electronic communications, and that many tools such as E-mail have become a routine part of their day-to-day communications activity.  Increasingly, women are experimenting with on-line conferences, mailing lists and web sites.  At the same time, the survey showed that women continue to face barriers in using the information superhighway, such as lack of training and the high cost of equipment and, in some places, of getting connected. 

Networking has been recognized by female scholars as a tool for women's empowerment, and women have taken to the Net to create a "cyberspace of their own".  In many places, women writers, editors, news directors and lobbyists are not only surfing the Net, but have become active in establishing numerous sites of special interest to women on the WWW.  Women's sites cover subjects such as gender and sexuality, feminism, women's heath, women in computer science, engineering, women's studies, women in academia and women in industry. 

Research carried out for the UN Division for the Advancement of Women found that women were initially less present on the electronic networks (less willing or less motivated to use the technology) than men, and that, not surprisingly, certain circles have developed on the Internet (particularly in the U.S., where electronic networking is most developed) that are characterized by a male-dominated and patriarchal on-line culture which discriminates against women or treats them negatively.  But women face two particular challenges in their use of computer networks.   

The first is to master access tools so they can make the best use of CNTs.   

The second is to use the new Internet publishing tools to develop their own publishing and media activities on the networks as paradigms of gender sensitive media products. 

Any discussion of women and electronic communications cannot ignore the lessons learned from the experience of women's role and portrayal in the traditional media, public and private, and the efforts made to make these media hospitable to women. 

The women's movement has long been critical of mass media, charging that they are deeply implicated in reinforcing patterns of discrimination against women in society.  An analysis of sex roles and stereotypes indicates that few reports deal with issues of special concern to women or reflect a gender perspective. 

In relation to CNTs, this is a crucial moment.  The rules of the game are still in formulation.  Women, therefore, need to discuss the need for gender-sensitive information; participate in decision-making on network development and evolve alternative and gender-sensitive practices.  Women need to decide whether they will create their own closed spaces on the Internet or assert their presence in mixed spaces.  And once again, the answer is, surely, both.  Without this kind of action, we can expect that the new medium will increasingly be yet another means to perpetuate negative stereotypes, or another male enclave where women are discriminated against and marginalized. 

Women have increasingly created alternative communications outside the mainstream media to counteract discrimination and stereotyping.  Independent alternative media, video, film, radio broadcasting and, increasingly, the CNTs.  Women have created and used alternative communication channels to support their efforts, defend their rights, diffuse their own forms of representation and question dominant models of mainstream culture.  With the advent of the CNTs, women are also finding ways to use them to support their advocacy efforts.  For example, women's groups in Mexico have found that electronic networking have facilitated their work in fighting NAFTA.  Groups are also appearing that help women gain access and training.  For example, WON, the Women's ON-LINE Network, is an on-line advocacy and action group which is sponsored by various women's groups. 

"Women are taking new steps and increasingly moving in new directions by networking electronically ... these days it is not unusual to see women's networks and organisations making the most of new information and communication tools to get their message out and make their voices heard"  

The Tribune, a women and development quarterly, 
International Women's Tribune Centre, Newsletter 55, September 1996 

The new media are a logical extension of alternative forms of media previously used by women.  They have characteristics similar to those of the alternative media, and suited to the needs of women's networks because of their decentralized and horizontal nature.  The essential difference from the mainstream media is their relation to space.  The challenge is to maintain the Internet as an open communication system with democratic access to information and not as a centrally controlled medium.  For women's organisations, this may mean establishing and defining their own spaces or influencing the character of on-line culture in favour of gender balance and non discrimination. 

Conclusions 

Electronic networking is being discovered by women as a useful medium for gaining access to information globally and for interacting quickly with people in many parts of the world, something which was not possible just a few years ago.  Increasingly, networking is viewed as a tool for feminist empowerment.  Clearly, however, the cost of equipment, lack of training and the hazards and irritation that some women have encountered on line, as well as the limitations women face in allocating time to networking activities, are obstacles yet to be overcome in many parts of the world. 

The information revolution offers both opportunities and challenges to women.  Lessons from efforts to make the traditional media more gender-sensitive offer some lessons for women in order for them to participate actively in the development of the new communication technologies.  If used effectively, these new technologies have the potential to help women step out of their isolation and to support the growing globalization of the women's movement. 

Many bodies in the United Nations system are continuing efforts to study the impact of the information revolution, taking into account the results of recent global conferences, including the Beijing Conference, and to make effective use of the new technologies for monitoring follow-up to these events.   

The System-Wide Medium-Term Plan for the Advancement of Women, 1996 - 2001 is one tool being used by the UN system to support implementation of the PfA adopted at Beijing.  The Commission on the Status of Women and the Economic and Social Council of the goals of the PfA in 1998 and 2000.  Along with governments, women's groups and the media, the United Nations is seeking to take advantage of the information superhighway to increase awareness of the global agenda as agreed at these conferences and to stimulate discussion and action on a global scale. 

Source: Women2000, No. 1/1996
UN, Division of the Advancement of Women

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