MIS Knowledge Base: The Internet - the Great Equalizer?

Susan Herring
MIS Knowledge Base
SLIS Network, Alumni Magazine, Fall 2001

MIS Knowledge Base

The Internet - the Great Equalizer?

by Anne Kibbler

THE PREDECESSOR OF THE INTERNET, called the ARPAnet, was created mainly by and for men, its use restricted to a predominantly male population of U.S. Department of Defense personnel and computer scientists.

The Internet was born in 1983 with the same credentials, but it quickly became touted as a democratic medium, destined to erase the distinctions between genders and between social classes.

But has it fulfilled its potential as a societal leveler? SLIS associate professor and linguist Susan Herring says that in the case of gender the answer is, for the most part, no.

"The body of evidence as a whole runs counter to the claim that gender is invisible or irrelevant on the Internet, or that the Internet equalizes gender-based power and status differentials," Herring told participants at the Itech Women conference organized in October by the city of Vienna, Austria. "At the same time, limited trends toward female empowerment are identified, alongside disadvantages of Internet communication that affect both women and men."

Herring delivered her keynote speech to the conference via videotape; the event was also broadcast in real time on the Internet.

In her study of the relationship between gender and the Internet, Herring has identified several key questions, including:

o Does the Internet alter deeply rooted cultural patterns of gender inequality, or do those patterns carry over into online communication?
o Is Internet technology inherently gender neutral, or does the fact that it was created by men result in an in-built structural bias that perpetuates male advantage?
o What are the effects of millions of girls and women entering what was, until very recently, a predominantly male domain?
o If the Internet is not yet a level playing field for women and men, is it more (or less) likely to become one in the future?

Herring concludes that so far, "in many respects, the Internet reproduces the larger societal gender status quo."

"Top-level control of Internet resources, infrastructure, and content is exercised mostly by men," she says, noting that the largest activity on the Internet - the distribution of pornography - is controlled by men.

In academic discussion groups, women participate and are responded to less than men. Also, it appears that women have to create their own groups to address their interests and that default activities on the Internet address the interests of men, Herring believes.

In terms of language, images, and content, traditional gender differences appear to carry over into computer-mediated communication.

Herring sees several possibilities for the future of women and the Internet. One is that the Internet will become balanced as more women go online globally, with an increasing number of women in control of Web content and distribution, as well as computer network design and administration.

Less optimistically, Herring says, such a "women's Web" could lead to the viewing of the Internet as "woman's technology" in the same way that typewriters and telephones became the tools of low-paid women workers.

The final alternative, she suggests, is that the status quo could be maintained, with Internet control remaining largely in the hands of men.

Posted December 12, 2001