Credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

(WOMENSENEWS)–Many of us who teach women’s studies are tentative in our acceptance of technology, as are many of our female students. However, computing and information technology is rapidly becoming essential in both the private and the public spheres.

Our ability to integrate it into new ways of teaching is important, not just for the efficient communication of course content, but also for the development of skills and literacies that will assure a satisfactory level of comfort and agency in the new digital culture.

Although women and men have shown roughly equal interest in using the computer, studies demonstrate that women feel less confident in computer use and are far less likely to pursue a career in computer sciences. Whatever the cause, women are not fully participating in a highly-paid technology that is rapidly restructuring our society.

The lack of interest in computer science as a profession may tell us something about women’s participation in digital culture. It is not necessary to have a degree in computer sciences to be active online, but it is important to be confident and comfortable. And recent studies suggest that underlying attitudes may need to be addressed in order to foster full participation by women.

A new sphere of influence is rising in Internet culture, and although there are many examples of talented and successful female and feminist participants, they are still in a minority.

Our students also need the tools to understand women’s involvement social media. Women are the majority in social media applications like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, making up 60 percent of all users, but men predominate on Linked In, a business-oriented social network used primarily to post curricula vitae and to trade referrals. This may mean that while the collaborative and open nature of social media encourages female participation with friends and family, it is men who are more successful in goal-oriented transactional networking in a wider circle of influence.

Popularity of Blogging

Blogging is another area where women show strong participation; over 22 million women read or publish blogs, according to a recent report by BlogHer, the preeminent women’s blog aggregation site, and women publish 49.1 percent of all blogs. Yet, this does not translate into female participation in the wider culture.

The reason for this becomes apparent in an examination of the BlogHer site itself. The majority of the blogs focus on work, parenting and lifestyles, with far less attention paid to news and commentary. This kind of community interaction may serve in the long run to establish a network that transcends race and class divisions to serve a larger political goal. But as it stands today, women’s self-expression on the Web seems to be as vulnerable to gatekeeping as it was in the traditional media, which relegated “women’s interests” to the Sunday section. This is not to say that the blogs themselves are not well written, insightful and highly relevant, but it does suggest that although women’s voices are being heard on the Internet, too often we are only talking to each other.

This problem was made particularly clear in the summer of 2008, when the annual BlogHer Convention in San Francisco was held the same weekend as the conference for Netroots Nation, an association of young, male and very political bloggers. Netroots was covered in the news section of The New York Times, but the BlogHer convention was relegated to the lifestyles section. The uproar that ensued on the feminist blogosphere demonstrated that the Times coverage had hit a nerve.

‘Climate of Hostility’

Another difficulty for female bloggers is in the level of discourse on the Web. Internet discussions can be very confrontational and some participants argue that this creates a climate of hostility. Maureen Dowd, one of the few female op-ed writers for The New York Times, accepted her online position in 1996. Six months later she was ready to quit: “I was a bundle of frayed nerves. I felt as though I were in a ‘Godfather’ movie, shooting and getting shot at.”

She was persuaded to remain, but if an experienced journalist like Dowd can feel threatened in Internet debate, how much more difficult will it be for our students? To fully participate in online commentary our students will need the rhetorical skills to successfully deal with “male” discourse and advocate for inclusionary practices.

Many female bloggers believe they are targeted for harassment more than men. In 2007 Cathy Sierra, a nationally-known tech blogger, permanently closed her blog, citing vicious sexual harassment and threats to herself and to her family. Other bloggers have been attacked in a similar fashion. In an interview with Gaby Wood, Jessica Valenti, founder of the feminist blog Feministing, describes her confrontation with misogynist attackers:

“There was one incident where I posted a video about online misogyny and saying that feminist bloggers blog under our own names all the time and say what we believe in, whereas when it comes to rapist and sexist and homophobic bloggers, they have massive anonymity to protect them. I said: if you really believe this, then have the guts to say who you are. They went nuts. They took the site down that night. I got 5,000 emails–you cunt, bitch, I’ll kill you, I’ll cut your breasts off…all kinds of sexually violent, scary things.”

The problem of Internet harassment is ongoing. Clearly, without our support, our students may not be able to deal with this behavior and could be silenced by it.

Excerpted from the book “Feminist Cyberspaces: Pedagogies in Transition,” edited by Sharon Collingwood, Alvina E. Quintana and Caroline J. Smith by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Sharon Collingwood received her Ph.D. from The University of Western Ontario, Canada, and teaches in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. In 2007, she received grants from The Ohio Learning Network and the Department of Continuing Education at Ohio State to develop a teaching and research space in the virtual world Second Life; she has been teaching distance courses there since that time.

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