INET99 in San Jose California, Christine Maxwell, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society, organised a breakfast meeting for women about making women's voices heard via the Internet. Some sixty women took part in a largely informal meeting which will continue on the specially created ISOC women's discussion list. The following interview of Christine Maxwell took place prior to that meeting.
Getting women's voices heard
What motivated you to do something specifically with and for women in the context of the Internet Society.
In my statement of candidacy for the Board of ISOC, I said that one of my goals was to see what could be done within ISOC to promote the access and the use of the Internet by women around the world.
What characterises the situation of women in relation to the Internet that requires special action to be taken?
The Internet is not any different form the world at large in the sense that there are much fewer women online than men. The difference is not nearly as marked as it was in the US, but if you go outside Western Society there is still a very big difference of access between women and men. On the other hand, the Internet is one of the most powerful potential voices for change and helping women. It is something women can use from the home. It has a tremendous potential to help individuals network and find more of a voice than they have ever had.
With its statement - the Internet is for everyone - the Internet Society has to do something special for those segments of the population that are under represented today.
Why do less women use the Internet?
Girls have much less access to computers and technology than boys, even in the United States and Europe. There is still an enormous amount of work to be done to encourage girls to attend science classes. Look at predominately women oriented professions, like nursing. A lot needs to be done to promote the use of technology and the Internet in those professions. One has to pay extra attention if we want to raise awareness and get that to happen.
I am the only woman currently on the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society. That shows that there is still a huge gap, with few women having prominent positions in which decisions are made. Such an imbalance is not good for anyone. Whether it be politics, education or elsewhere, the balanced view is a much more acceptable view in the end.
Women and men have different perceptions of things and those need to be balanced out more than they are. It is not a question of taking an Amazon approach, We are talking about the right of everyone to have access to the Internet. And there needs to be additional help for certain segments of society because of the way the world and society have developed.
In what way do you think that women's approach to the Internet is different?
There is a greater fear on the part of women about technology, because they haven't had a lot of access. This timidity needs to be got over, by literally touching computers and getting on the Internet. It's a big barrier for a lot of people. In addition, although there is a huge cost issue, it is more a question of timidity.
What you have with the Internet for the first time, is the ability to be equal. You cannot actually be seen. You read what the person writes. You don't see what they look like. That is very critical. When you see someone, you take in their physical ambience. You react to that.
Over the last ten years using the Net, I have learnt to enjoy all the people I have met online as individuals, through what they said about themselves or what they had to say about what we were discussing. I had not idea what they looked like. You don't have those extra layers of assumptions that you make when you see someone. That is a great help to women today because the gender connotation is not there. That makes it easier for women to be who they are.
What do you think of the idea that women have a more pragmatic approach to the Internet in relating it to their everyday life than men.
Men and boys have a great interest in interactive games. There is a great difficulty in getting girls interested in such games. Very few are written for that market. Social and societal issues are now making themselves felt. Women's views and women's perceptions are extremely important in that regard. Any society where decision-making is men only or women only is an imbalanced process. Women tend to network better. They listen better. They look at things from a more holistic way.
Those women who have already been successful in the context of the Internet, for example who have a business online, that gives them an ability to encourage and to mentor other women. I'm hoping that that will be one of the outcomes of the women's meeting at INET99. Those of us who will be in that room represent a kernel of people who have an obvious capability to mentor and to help others who haven't made that step yet. To give them encouragement, to give them a sense of why that is important for them and what it can do for their lives.
Why did you choose to exclude men from your discussion?
The reason why the ISOC women's discuss list is only for women at this moment is that we have had commentary form women who are very nervous of having men on that list. We have to be very sensitive to that initially. If men want to be part of what we are doing, we have to find a way for that to happen. But we have to initiate the discussion and then get women to buy into that idea and not foist it on to them in the first place. I hope that such a dialogue between women and men will be another outcome of our work in the near future. We are not trying to set up an exclusionist club. We have to avoid having women feel excluded because they know men are going to be there.
Christine Maxwell, San Jose, California, INET99.
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