CMCM LOGO CMC Magazine / Volume 2, Number 6 / June 1, 1995 / Page 11

Change and the Public Forum
A Student's Perspective on Online Sexism

by Camille Shandor (

I am a woman, and I am interested in computer-mediated communication. Sound like a radical statement? To many it does, as it would to my 10th grade computer teacher. After repeated attempts to submerge me in computer culture, Mr. Quesada finally threw up his hands in desperation and said, "Camille, you'll never be a computer wiz." Well, now I'm at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and I use computers daily to do everything from discussing class topics online to creating hypertext programs. So, eat your words, Mr. Quesada. I am vindicated.

Or am I? What about those other skeptics out there who would bet on this woman to fail in the computerized arena? Much has been said about the bias against women in the realm of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Theorists have proven online communication to be, at times, as sexist as that which takes place off-line. Men continually talk over women on Listservs, even when the topic of debate is feminism or feminist issues. The odds are against me and, unfortunately, the remedies I can seek to eliminate this gender bias are tepid at best.

One of the most popular solutions is the creation of all-female lists. Without men bullying us around, we can feel free to communicate as we wish. However, supporters of this idea are forgetting one crucial point. Women online want to change the patriarchal nature of CMC. They don't like being crowded out and ignored. How, therefore, is retreating to an all-female list going to change anything? Our battle against online sexism must be waged in a public, mainstream, mixed-sex forum, or the battle amounts to little more than a lifeless skirmish with ourselves. Surprisingly, trying to get other female students here at RPI to see my point of view has been difficult. I say surprisingly because academia, unlike the business world, is a rather controlled environment. We are encouraged to exchange our ideas freely. We are all hyperaware of sexism in communication -- at least in the Language, Literature, and Communication (LL&C) department of RPI -- and make a concerted attempt to stomp out such behavior whenever we see it. If women don't want to stake out their territory in online communication while at a safe, academic institution, then where? With this question in mind, I have recounted an interaction I had with three other members of my department. As you will see, eradicating sexism online is not a goal some women in academia are ready to fight for.

After presenting my paper, "Burning the White Flag: An Active Solution to the On-line Patriarchy," at the first annual Rensselaer Graduate Conference on Communication, I decided it was important to practice what I preached. As the title of my paper indicates, I advocated that women should take an active part in maintaining and, perhaps, dominating the online arena. Therefore, during the spring semester, I attempted to make my presence known on the two lists to which I belonged: ProjectC, an academic list set up for a class, and the GDG, the department bulletin board. I sent numerous messages to, and spawned debate on, ProjectC. The GDG was more difficult to haunt, however, because it is not a discussion-oriented list.

Therefore, when David Porush, a professor in the LL&C department, posted a friend's controversial conference paper to the GDG, I welcomed the possibility of a healthy discussion. I felt the paper stated that women should react violently to assaults on feminism, blowing up fundamentalist churches, shooting right-to-lifers, and the like. I quickly, and emphatically, posted a response.

Not many others did. OK, so no one else did, but I did not get discouraged. I just prepared to wait until others had the time; David's and my posts were long, and it was a busy time of the semester. Finally, I received the response I was waiting for, in face-to-face form. Two women in the department, whom I will call Jane and Pam, spoke to me about my post, said that they enjoyed my critique, and agreed with much of what I said. As I was wondering why they did not post their thoughts publicly, Jane said, "We have a lot to talk to you about, but we'll probably post to you privately."

I disagreed with their desire to keep the conversation quiet, but I did not say anything right away, because my friend beat me to it. This friend is a man, whom I'll call Paul. The conversation went as follows:

Paul: "I was wondering why you don't want to post your comments to everyone on the GDG."

Jane: "Because it's my prerogative not to."

Paul: "Yes, but the article that sparked Camille's comments was posted publicly. Don't you think that the GDG would benefit from this kind of discussion?"

Jane: "Don't I think that the GDG would benefit? Don't you mean 'Don't I think that men would benefit?' What about African Americans? Do you think that they wonder if whites will benefit from their discussions every time they decide to talk to one another privately? Sometimes women just want to talk to other women. In this case, I have no desire for you to hear my comments about the article."

My contribution to this discussion echoed Paul's. "But what an opportunity," I said to Jane. "[the] paper is so full of controversy, we could debate it endlessly." Also, because the paper focuses on feminism, I expected the "we" of the last sentence to contain a majority of women. I guess I was looking at the possible discussion as our department's contribution to reducing the gender gap online. Jane did not buy it. Neither did Pam, whose concern echoed the one I mentioned in the introduction: "Men will just crowd us out," Pam said. So, rather than give men the chance to dominate, Jane and Pam decided to remain reticent and remove themselves from any public discussion.

Regardless of my own opinions about mixed-sex, online discussions, Jane and Pam's retreat from the public arena is diametrically opposed to the idea of change. Of course, everyone has their right to privacy. But in this case, if women don't want to take the proverbial bull by the horns and post without fear of censorship, then how will we gain our rightful, equal place in CMC? Jurgen Habermas recognized such active participation as an essential element in the formation of a democratic society. Yet much of what he says concerning democracy can be extrapolated to the fight against online sexism.

"Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely." (as cited in Rheingold, p. 282)
Notice that Habermas uses the term "publicize." It is one thing to have access to the public sphere in principle, and quite another to make use of that access. Here in the LL&C department, we are all given access to the GDG, regardless of our sex. Female students may fear censorship by male students, but the only way to combat it is to post, and post publicly.

I wanted to shout all of the above at Jane and Pam. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that to them, I probably sounded radical. As they see it, it is fine if I want to discuss my opinions with everyone on the GDG. But they have their reasons not to and, therefore, will not. They may wish for an egalitarian online environment. But, for now, CMC is a medium that is still dominated by men, and many women in my department have not found a way to change it. There are those out there, like Susan Herring, who advise women to participate in mixed-sex fora. Her articles are assigned repeatedly by professors in my department. But one look at the numbers (rates of participation, response, etc. for men and women) will show that her words go unheeded.

Perhaps the time is not right. Perhaps women want to feel more united within their gender before extending their communication outside of it. Whatever the reason, from this woman's point of view, it is pointless to talk about changing the nature of CMC if we are unwilling to actively do so. If a more equal online environment requires free and uncensored communication, CMC does not have it and some women do not yet want to fight for it. For now, we will have to be satisfied with our meager online participation rate and our women-only discussion groups. That is, satisfied until we take the Habermasian challenge and work for change publicly. -


    Rheingold, H. (1993). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Camille Shandor is a Master's student in Technical Communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and is working this summer in New York City.

Copyright © 1995 by Camille Shandor. All Rights Reserved.