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The following interview of Karen Drost, member of the Board of WebGrrls in the Netherlands, took place shortly after her paper presented during INET2000 in Yokohama. That session, entitled "Women and the Internet", was chaired by Sylvia Cadena who already has an article on Connected Magazine about women and the Internet.

WebGrrls: introducing women to computers and the Net

What exactly is WebGrrls?

WebGrrls is an international organisation founded in 1995 in the States by Aliza Sherman. Its mission is to provide a forum for women involved in or interested in new media and technology, so they can network, exchange business leads, create strategic alliances, mentor and teach and learn skills to help themselves succeed in the increasingly technical world we live in. WebGrrls is a virtual community, one of the first to be established on the Internet. Since 1995, chapters have sprung up from the International organisation in more than forty countries.

So Webgrrls set up a chapter in Holland?

A woman called Corrine Petrus from the Netherlands heard of the idea and decided to establish the Dutch WebGrrls. She founded an ISP to sponsor WebGrrls by hosting a web site and providing a mailing list. To begin with it was just a mailing list. The first WebGrrls already knew each other in real life. They spread the word and other women then joined in. The best advertising you can get for a group of women is always by word of mouth because women want to be sure it is a safe environment. They feel more comfortable with it if a friend has recommended it.

What is the perceived need for women to get together in this way?

In 1995 when the international WebGrrls were established, the Web was very much a male dominated place. Most of the communication went through technical newsgroups and most of the participants were men. When a woman joined such a group and started asking questions, once the men realised she was a woman, they often replied that she was stupid for not knowing the answer or they asked her if she was free that night. That put off many women. Some of them never returned to the Internet. Others felt they could do without men. And that's what got WebGrrls started. Now the climate has changed a lot. There are many more women, so you don't get bothered so much on the Net. Now WebGrrls is about providing a safe haven for women to get their feet wet in the Net.

Women have a very different attitude to technology and the Net than men. Women are more restrained. They are afraid they will hit the wrong key and crash the computer. Men, in comparison, are more likely to explore by themselves. So WebGrrls encourages women to explore. Many women start out with WebGrrls and then join other forums.

Very often, when a man has a computer and he likes using it, he would really like his wife or girlfriend to get the hang of it too. But when he offers to show her, he sits down and starts clicking away with the mouse, tapping the keyboard and showing her all kinds of interesting things, but she couldn't do it herself. A women finding herself in a similar situation with someone asking her a question, will keep her hands to herself and suggests you take the mouse yourself and do the necessary things with it... That's a very important difference of approach. Many women are discouraged if their boyfriend or husband treats them like that, thinking they could never learn how to do that.

And then there is a tendency in the upbringing of girls to say to them "Maybe it is too difficult for you, let me help you". Whereas boys are much more encouraged to go for it and explore. This is still in our culture. Of course, you can try to change society and the way girls and boys are raised so the difference fades with time. Here however, we are talking about grownup women who want to learn. It is too late for them. You can't change their upbringing. I agree that we shouldn't wan to separate men from women, but WebGrrls is just a sort-cut to help them.

The great thing about a mailing list is that, if you have a question, you first have to clearly put it into words. You can't say simply say "the Internet doesn't work". As you write, you first have to find the right words so that other people can understand what your problem is and then they in turn have to put the possible solution into words for you to understand. What's more, you can't take over the mouse from someone on a mailing list...

WebGrrls in the Netherlands was very successful. How did you deal with that fast rate of growth?

At first, we didn't really deal with it. It just happened. We are only now starting to take into account our speed of growth. We have set our goals to have 5000 WebGrrls in the Netherlands by the end of this year. So many people are now involved that we have to cater for all their needs and initiatives. We are trying to do that by describing all the tasks to be done within the association and finding volunteers to take on tasks and be responsible for their part of what we do.

Moving from 500 to 3500 completely changes the dynamics of the community.

We started with just one mailing list. We now have ten, and I expect that number to go up. The more people there are, the more interests there will be. The example of the KoGirls is a good example. They are self-employed women who have their own business. Their group is not really about Internet or computers. They just use the Internet as a medium for communication. That is something women are extremely good at; better than men. The KoGirls support each other in what happens to them in their businesses. I think that more such special interest groups will arise in the future with not all of them only about computers and/or the Internet.

Where do you draw the line in admitting such new special interest groups?

I don't know. We'll see what comes up and discuss it when it happens. We do envisage expanding the number of mailing lists, but we are not going to say right now what those lists are going to be. We'll see what people ask of us.

Up until know WebGrrls grew naturally without you making an effort for it to grow. Now you want to push its growth. That must change your approach...

We are now trying to set up a policy as to how we are going to reach all these women. Last year, the General Assembly decided that we should target all Dutch women and give them at least once the experience of the Internet. Then they can decide for themselves whether or not they like it or want to do more. What we don't want is having women who have heard about the Internet and who say it is not for them because they don't feel smart enough for computers and technologies. Such an approach makes a substantial change for us as an organisation. Instead of just catering for those who had found the WebGrrls, we now wish to draw them to us and teach them how to use computers and the Internet. For the moment, however, we continue to grow uniquely due to word of mouth and articles people have written about us. By this autumn, we plan to have a more active policy for going out and spreading the word.

Money is another difficulty within associations, especially when they become so big, because they start needing staff ... Do people have to pay to be members?

There are various shades between Dutch WebGrrls and members of the WebGrrls association. There are now about 500 paying members out of the 3500 Dutch WebGrrls. As a Board, we would like to see more people become paying members. They don't have to pay very much. It's 25 Guilders - about 12US$. We are going to increase that fee next year because we have found a couple of sponsors and we are looking for more to provide member benefits.

It is very hard. There are so many little things that happen which cost money ... and it all adds up. We are in the process of applying for subsidies and we are seeking funds. It costs so much time to raise money that you have to ask yourself the question "What comes first, the money or the time?" We are trying to set up projects, because the government will fund projects but not the setting up of a headquarters. But if you have enough funded projects, you can establish some sort of headquarters.

How do manage to get people involved on a voluntary basis?

The real life meetings do a lot to help. People get to know each other. They are already enthusiastic about the organisation, but meeting other people who are also enthusiastic, helps a lot. From the three and a half thousand Dutch WebGrrls, about one thousand actively participate in one or more lists. The rest just sit back and read the discussion summaries we make. Of those one thousand there are many that say "This group gives me so much, I want to give something back. I want to help in the process of reaching more women, of organising more events and activities." If you put out a call because you want to organise something, many of them will come forward to do it. Others come up to you in a real life event, like a training day, saying it is so good they are prepared to help if needed.

What we try to do is to establish large teams for certain tasks with everyone having a very clear idea of what her duties are, so it doesn't take up too much time. As Board members, we are just swamped in work and that is very frustrating. So we try to delegate small tasks to people and encourage them not to take on too much. Some get so enthusiastic, they want to do everything and they end up dropping out because it is too much.

WebGrrls began as a virtual community, but you put a lot of importance on face-to-face meetings as well.

People, specifically women, are very curious. So after communicating with other women within WebGrrls for a period of time, they are very curious to meet the people. It is not enough to just exchange e-mail information, they want to meet the person behind the e-mail address. That is a very good incentive to come to one of the events. Also many people decide to meet outside our organised events. They just hit it off in virtual life and get together. Many friendships have sprung from WebGrrls and that makes those people feel very warmly towards WebGrrls and they also feel a little bit indebted to the organisation. That's good for us, because they get so much out of it that they want to give something back.

How does the Dutch Chapter of WebGrrls fit into the International organisation?

We only fit in because we use the same name. The International organisation is based in the US. They have recently established their headquarters with paid staff and are now asking all chapters to pay 35$ for each WebGrrl. They don't differentiate between paying and non-paying members. We do, and we only get 12 US$ from five hundred of our 3500 WebGrrls. So there is no way we are going to pay 35$ for all of those three and a half thousand WebGrrls. The international organisation does offer to help organisations, but as we are one of the biggest chapters in the world, so far they mostly look to us to see how we have organised our affairs and then copy us. So maybe they should be paying us. They do offer discounts, but that only applies to the States. As a result we are in the process of changing our name, because they have the legal right to the name.

What a shame, it is a good name ,,, (*)

Karen Drost, Dutch WebGrrls
Interview by Alan McCluskey, Yokohama.

(*) - Note that the new name is WOW - Women On the Web, as of April 2001.

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Created: July 19th 2000 - Last up-dated: July 19th, 2000