Gender And The Web

Associate-Professor Keng Chua
Centre for Media Communications and Asian Studies
Faculty of Arts, Southern Cross University
PO Box 157, Lismore, NSW 2480 Australia


In this paper, I wish to look at the both the technologies of gender and the technologies of knowledge, which includes the technologies of writing, reading and communication, as they converge in this new technology called the WorldWideWeb.What I want to do in this webtext is to locate the gender discourses surrounding the Web and to explore some issues relating to the design, organisation, control and use of the web as a gendered space and facility. This is by no means a complete dsicussion of the subject and in the spirit of web hypertextual connetivity I hope this will open up other pathways to link to future exploration of gender and the web.

The "re-presenting" of knowledge

The WorldWideWeb is a new technology of knowledge in so far as it enables the construction, organisation and dissemination of information. Information is the raw data by which knowledge is constructed primarily through the process of its organisation and management. What is useless trivia to one person may become useful knowledge if its is organised and managed for its relevance. The Web is potentially a powerful technology of knowledge, not just a linked facility for storing information or documents. The connectivity of documents of information has allowed for new ways of organising and building knowledges, of traversing traditional disciplines in a more intimate manner - you can draw on a document in say, the hard sciences, and one from the arts, all within the same frame - and of potentially connecting all the knowledges in the world. Hence its name. It enables a kind of framing that yokes disparate disciplines together and in so doing create a new montage of knowledge. And the fluidity of its frames and framework present us with new ways of looking at old knowledges. It re-presents knowledges and forces us to acknowledge the comparativity and fluidity of the structures of `truths'. Readers do not have to adhere to authorial or editorial organising structures. They can re-organise and dismantle such structures to suit their own topical interests. In the act of electronic access, they also perform a re-organising task. The organising principle of the web also makes the network of links and associations with other texts `visible and explicit to an extent never before possible' (Bolter, 1991:113). In this way the new technology of writing and reading as operative in the Web dismantles the strict hierarchy of printed texts such as those found in a book. At the same time, it prevents closure in narrative and non-narrative structures, since texts can be linked almost infinitely in the Web. It promotes a non-linearity of argument and different organisation of conceptual space.

The deconstructionists, notably Barthes and Derrida, and even Wittgenstein before them have attacked linear hierarchy in writing and proposed that `the end of linear writing is the end of the book' (Derrida, 1976:86-7).In this sense Derrida was prescient and the Web has borne out his new way of reading, writing and the construction of knowledge. In this way the Web can be seen as a new technology of weaving the fabric of knowledge. Once again a technology has come about as a new culture of knowledge has pre-empted; the new technology has not determined the new culture, but it has become its handmaiden and thus enables the operability of the new knowledge structure which is now seen as fluid and interlaced rather than permanently fixed on the page. This is yet another example of how technological changes have reinforced the emergence of cultural changes.

Technologies of gender

In the same way, the newer technologies of gender have forced us to re-think certain `truths' about gender construction and re(-)presentations. Whereas in the past, gender was conflated with biological sex, we can now think in terms of gender construction and re-construction. Simone de Beauvoir first hit on this in her seminal work, The Second Sex (1949) which critiques the hierarchical binary structure of gender organisation of her generation. In her thesis that ` a woman is not born, she is made', she paved the way for a re-thinking of gender spaces, roles, ideologies, values, beliefs and behaviour. Gender has come to be thought of not as essentially given, but as socially and culturally constructed, not as hierarchical and fixed but as equitable and fluid.

At the same time, gender studies scholars have pointed to gender construction as the `product of various social technologies, such as the cinema, and of institutionalised discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices ,as well as practices of daily life' (de Lauretis, 1987:2). Social emphasis on gender differences has also lead to differences in designations of spaces and behaviour for different genders. Traditionally masculinity has been linked with the logical, technical and rational while femininity has been linked with the emotional, intuitive and irrational (see Threadgold, 1990; Curry-Jansen, 1989, Spender, 1985, Saco, 1992 and Chapman & Rutherford, 1989). Such cultural representations of gender have led to the division of spaces and activities designated as more suited or productive for one gender rather than the other. On the other hand, deconstruction of such representations and discourses have pointed to new ways of thinking about gender spaces and activities resulting in more blurrings of gender boundaries and a re-mapping of gender terrains. The new femininities which seek to challenge the old structure of positing women as illogical and irrational have led to a movement towards the public, `rational' sphere for women. At the same time the new masculinities have allowed for men's involvement in activities formerly designated as women's domestic realm. This new masculinity has also allowed for the respectability of the computer `nerd' and web and internet `surfer'. It has permitted, too, games which allow for gender switches such as in MUDs and MOOs. These gender re-mappings and activity switches have in turn reinforced cultural de-/re-constructions of gender. It is not surprising, therefore, to note the heat of the contest for gender space now fought in cyberspace.

What's in a name?

But what's at stake and what's in a name? The word `web' certainly connotes traditionally feminine activities such as weaving, spinning and even, looming. `Web' is defined by the Macquarie Dictionary as `Something formed by weaving or interweaving; a thin silken fabric spun by spiders,.. a woven fabric, esp. a whole piece of cloth in the course of being woven or after it comes from the loom; anything resembling this, as seeming to be interlaced, tightly woven, or closely linked; a tangled intricate state of circumstances, events, etc .. a large reel of paper , esp. as used in certain types of printing. in medieval and old English: webbe : akin to weave'. In other words the name itself would connote activities traditionally associated with feminine domains. So the web can be considered in terms of feminine connotations and yet the discourses surrounding the activities involved in constructing or using the web connote more traditionally male activities such as surfing, cruising and crawling rather than weaving, spinning or looming. Henley and Kramerae (1991) points to the macrolevel power of such linguistic usage:
Structural, male dominance favors the growth of faulty linguistic systems, including dominant metaphors, which express primarily bmale exoerience and further add to making women a muted group - leading to further problems in communication. (Henley and Kramerae, 1991:40 -41)
Moreover, researchers such as Spender (1993) and van Zoonen (1992) have pointed out that discourses that emphasise the exclusion of women from the information society or their lack of interest or pleasure in such technology construct a social domain in which there is no place for women or femininity. Frissen (1992) notes that what is striking in terms of research into new information and communication technologies is the absence of gender discussion on the research agenda. She refers to the research by Golding and Murdock (1986) which outlines how the new communication media replicate existing structures of inequality. Hepworth and Robins (1988) as cited by Frissen in their case study of Northern England notes the existence of familiar problems of social, economic and regional inequality in the adoption of new communication technologies. Ferguson (1986) notes the dearth of research and a `neo-technological determinism' where the advantages and disadvantages of new communication technologies to differing social groups `remains remarkably and perhaps deliberately underexplored'. At this stage, however, we can say that potentially such a cyberspace realm is open to both genders - masculine and feminine - and perhaps could also be made to cater to androgynous endeavours.

Web or archival space

We can look at the Web as cyberspace as archival space or cyberspace as media space, most probably as both, much like the view of photo-energy as particles and as waves. I draw the analogy to the library, not only because the Web acts as a facility much like the library by archiving (storing) stacks (incidentally the word `stacks' is also technical library term) of documents - hypertexts - which may be both intertextual and interlinked. Accessing these `stacks' is, of course, is characterised by speed and ease rather than by a lengthy process of manual activities performed by the librarian on the instruction of the user. In other words, the user and the librarian are conflated in the act. If we look at the Web as such a facility , the potential for women harnessing the space is both great and small. The keepers of the physical archive - the library - are mostly women and there also many female `chief' curators. And the users comprises both men and women. At the same time, the canons kept in libraries, the books, are mostly male dominated. There are many more male writers than there are female writers whose works are canonised in this manner. The process of canonisation can be traced to the library's roots - that of the monastic/religious archive where monks were both keepers and scribes. That is, they were both the producers and managers of knowledge and information archived in this way. Scholarly discourse surrounding the Internet in which the Web is located has pointed out its masculine/militaristic origins - its link to the US Department of Defense project, ARPANET. Researchers cited by Wajcman (1991) and van Zoonen (1992) suggest that such origins may weigh heavily in the interest of one gender at the expense of the other. They point to the common patriarchal and sexual imagery which reflect ` the male domination of all powerful public institutions' (Wajcman, 1991:38) and extend this to computing technology which is also heavily dominated by men. So the analogy and link of the web to the library in this way can be seen as an alternative to such discursive determinist positions. At the same time, noting the masculinsation of the archival canons, there is still course for concern about the equity of access to women in terms of input into design and production, although in the past twenty years or so women have been involved in changing the canon by writing and publishing. On the other hand, Spender has warned that women are being written out of the new communications techologiess, just as they begin to make their presence felt in the old book publishing technology. In fact, the new technologies such as the web will become the sites which replace book stores, publishing houses and the old technologies of reading and writing.

Webspace as media space

We can also view the cyberspace of the web as another form of media space in which all the various channels of the mass communications such as print, aural, visual and kinetic media can potentially, and have been, webbed together. Within such a framework if we were to consider webspace as media space, there is greater concern regarding issues of gender equity when we take into account the gendered history of mass communications. Most of the public media are dominated by men to the extent that not only are producers and presenters of the media mostly male, but their content and discourse reflect such predominantly masculine presence. For example in the film industry in the People's Republic of China, one of the world's most well developed film industries which employ around 100,000 film workers, with a system sanctioned by a communist government whose original project is a commitment to gender equity in society, only around one-third of these are women. Elsewhere in more capitalist countries, the record is extremely poor, not only for films, but also for all the various forms of the media. At the same time, media representations of women and their content reflect an agenda geared towards a male `gaze' (Mulvey, 1989). Coupled with the common discourse of locating the internet and the web in computing technology, again a domain heavily dominated by men, the projection of the web as masculine may become self-fulfilling. There are lessons to be learned here.

Gender opportunities and the Web

On the other hand, as work shifts into domestic space and away from corporate offices with the possibility of working at home, women may be empowered in the new technology which makes entry into the public sphere unnecessary. Women have always been at home in both senses of the phrase with domestic technology, such as for instances, kitchen appliances. It now remains to be seen which culture will domesticate this cyberspace - cultural openness which permits new ranges of femininities and masculinities or the old divisions which lock men and women to different territories. Technologies of the highways and vehicular transportation have presented no barriers to use by any gender, although the technology that goes into building cars may not be easily apprehended by the ordinary driver. Yet unlike cars and highways, This new technology is about knowledge construction and cultural construction, not just about usaging but about shaping knowledge and culture. Knowledge should empower women as much as men to make forays into new conceptual spaces and expand intellectual borders; it should empower those who do not share equitable intellectual space. Kaplan and Farrell (1994), in Weavers of Webs: A Portrait of Women on the Net, a study of a group of young women's usage of the Web, cites one participant as saying that `even as I was inducted into this world [of the net], I invoked changes in it... You create the net in the act of accessing it'. Indeed, a search on Web sites has revealed that women are also busy staking claims on the new technological terrain.Women have already begun to stake claims on certain web terrains. They have created, amidst a proliferation of web sites constructed by men, certain spaces in which to explore their own cultural knowledge. For example women's WWW sites include topics and domains for discussion such as gender and sexuality, women's health, women in computing science and engineering, women's studies programs amd women's centers, women in academica and industry, women's handbook, womens's studies, women's wire etc.

The Web and the internet will continue to remorph gender, and in so doing dissolves gender boundaries as well as discipline boundaries. In this way the new technologies of knowledge in conjunction with the new technologies of gender will enable the de-territorialisation of knowledge. It is at this point that women should seize the opportunity for unless they are there to shape and manage, they might find themselves/ourselves being shaped and managed once again through the new technologies.


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