Personal tools


CPSR Newsletter Vol 18, Number 3
Volume 18, Number 3 The CPSR Newsletter Summer 2000

Electronic Community Networks: Women's Place, Women's Space? Brian D. Loader
Leigh Keeble

1. Introduction

This paper discusses the early findings from a research project in which we are critically evaluating the effects of ICTs upon women's life opportunities in community networks. We suggest that electronic spaces are influenced amongst other factors, by real-life spaces which are often gendered and exclusionary.

In this paper we are addressing gender differences in relation to the understanding of and operating within a "community." We suggest that the fundamental assumption that technologies should be embedded within existing cultural and social relations is gender-blind as it does not take account of the gendered relations which already exist in community social networks. We shall advocate the provision of women-only centres and suggest that they offer the potential for some women to explore the technology in an empowering way to suit their own needs and requirements free from the constraints of patriarchal control and relationships.

The findings we are discussing in this paper are based on research which is being undertaken by the CIRA on a range of community groups in the North East of England. The groups are diverse in their aims and objectives and have been established to serve either a particular location or an interest group.

2. The complexities and ambiguities of the concept of 'community'

The term "community" is vague and shifting and arguably the source of much ambiguity. It has diverse meanings but is often associated with "a sense of warmth and human kindness, essentially personal and comforting" (Titmus, 1968:104). As Williams (1993) and Tester (1996) argue, where women are concerned, the term "community" can be used in two ways. It can be used positively to mean women's space, where women can organise together outside the home to improve living conditions or access services and employment. In addition, the community can be a source of support and location of friendships for many women.

However, when used in relation to other situations, such as the UK government policy of community care, its meaning is far more restrictive to women whereby it becomes women's place rather than space. This place is one where they carry the burden of responsibility for unpaid care in the home (Williams, 1993, Mayo, 1994). Where the community is interpreted as women's place, it has the potential to be women's prison. They access services in the area, find employment in their immediate area, which allows them to continue to fulfil their domestic responsibilities, and develop relationships there. However, in this situation, they become 'locked into their locality' (Scott et. al, 1999).

The relationship between space and place for women has been explored by a range of feminist geographers (see e.g. Rose, 1993). Indeed, there has been a move to highlight the importance of differential use of space to differing communities in a broad range of academic studies (Seabrook, 2000). However, for the point of this paper, we shall argue that it is how "community" in community groups and social networks is defined by its members in relation to space or place which directly impacts on the amount and type of access women have to ICTs in community settings. We are tentatively suggesting that where 'community' is interpreted by group members as women's space, it is more likely that some women will engage in a range of activities which are both individually and collectively empowering.

3. Community Informatics--reproducing gender inequalities?

There is no doubt that enshrined in the contemporary practice of Community Informatics is a desire to achieve a goal of equal access to new technologies. However, it has been identified in a range of research that although women's access to these technologies is increasing, it is not equal to that of men's (Spender, 1995, Shade, 1998). Advocates of Community Informatics echo these findings. Walker (2000) acknowledged that community projects involving ICTs have led to significant increases in access but notes that the majority of those who are making use of technology either in community settings or in their own homes are "... still white, male and middle class."

Of the community groups in which CIRA is closely involved, a minority have women in key positions in their organisation. In many instances, the roles that women take in the groups replicates and reinforces traditional gender roles - the women in the community groups act as secretaries, administrators and receptionists. For many of these women, their access to the technology is limited to its more office based functions, their opportunities to explore the internet or other more interactive forms of technology are controlled and constrained by the role that they take on in the group.

Our own research has shown that many women, particularly those hoping to return to work after a long period of absence, display low levels of confidence and a lack of self esteem. This presents a major barrier to them in relation to accessing both formal education and new technologies (Green & Keeble, 2000, Dyson, 2000). Issues of inclusiveness to new technologies, and the communication and information services they offer, appears to remain a priority for governments in Europe and North America (BBC Online, 2000). However, there remains an underlying assumption that simply by putting technology into the "community" access by women and men will be equal. Our research suggests to us that this is not the case. Whilst women and men take on preconceived gendered roles within their community groups, the exploration of the potential of new technologies is constrained by those roles.

Accordingly, the evidence emerging from our research suggests that many of the community groups in which we work quite clearly suggest and reinforce the idea of the community (that is those in which they operate) as women's place.

We are not suggesting that the marginalisation of women with regards to access to technology predominates in every mixed community group. It is quite possible that the phenomena we are discussing relates to the area in which we are working. The North East of England has been traditionally characterised by a strong manufacturing industry and its culture and the identities of women and men have been influenced by a strong tradition of the male breadwinner model. Despite the widespread social and economic changes which have been taking place--the decline in traditional male industries, the growth of employment in service industries, the interventions and restructuring of the welfare state, and changes in marriage, motherhood and employment--the fundamental dominant gendered social structures and divisions of labour and hierarchies implicit in them remain unchanged.

Accordingly, we are suggesting that this dominant culture which is based on the tradition of the male breadwinner model has influenced the identities and roles of women and men which are then played out again in community groups. Although women appear to be totally accepted within these community groups, it is very much within the rules and boundaries as to what is acceptable as dictated by men. This therefore, leads on to some women not being able to take full advantage of the new technologies. Indeed, in one of the groups we have examined, it has been decided by the men who run the group that the other users (90 per cent of whom are women) cannot access the internet until the male organisers have taught them basic word processing, spreadsheets etc.

We are not suggesting that in all of the community groups in which we are involved that the men are deliberately excluding or marginalising the women. Indeed, in many of the groups neither the men or the women are exploring the potential of new technologies. However, what we are suggesting is that where there is a tendency to replicate gendered identities, the roles that women take in these networks makes them less likely to participate fully with the new technology.

4. Conclusions

Two of the community projects, with which CIRA currently works and researches, are women only spaces. Geographers and social scientists have long argued the importance of space to social interaction (Rose, 1993). It is argued that human agents through everyday routine tasks and across space reproduce social structure. Accordingly, "space and the everyday task is the arena through which gendered social relations are (re)created" (Rose, 1993:17). The women's centres, which we discuss here, are places where women go and where traditional 'masculine' cultures are less likely to be reproduced or created.

The two women's centres which form the basis of this research are located in towns with high economic and social disadvantage. Both centres have been established for a considerable period of time and are similar in their aims and objectives. They provide a space for women to explore self-identified activities, including those which are IT related. They provide professional support and counselling for women wishing to access their services. They also provide a social place for women to meet other women, a place which provides for many women, an escape from the isolation of their homes.

From our initial research (Green & Keeble, 2000), we have found that these women-only centres are places where ICTs are being integrated into the everyday lives of the users. These networks reproduce and strengthen bonds of affection and support and they function to produce, share and exchange resources. As such, they provide important sites of resistance to prevailing cultures of masculinity.

We are not suggesting that simply placing ICTs into women-only centres will ensure a sudden equalising of use of new technologies. The situation is far more complex than that. However, the women's centres which we are discussing here do create space for women to explore their own interests and provide opportunities to meet other women and share their experiences. As such they are a valuable asset for women and are potentially empowering.

The Women's Centres in our research are established to provide women with a space. It is, as we have argued earlier, the importance of this relationship to place and space in the community which can either trap women or provide them with opportunities to explore their own interests, to gain confidence and to value themselves.

Brian D. Loader, Co-Director
Leigh Keeble, Research Fellow
Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit (CIRA),
University of Teesside


BBC Online (2000). "Blair's five-year Internet pledge" 7th March 2000.

Bornat, J., et. al. (Eds.) (1997). Community Care: a reader. Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Dyson, C. (2000). An Evaluation of women-only provision in IT training. unpublished Masters Thesis.

Green, E., Keeble, L. (2000). The technological story of a Women's Centre: a feminist model of user centred design. Unpublished paper presented at the Community Informatics Conference - Connecting Communities through the Web, University of Teesside, April 2000.

Mayo, M. (1994). Communities and Caring: The Mixed Economy of Welfare Hampshire. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Rose, G. (1993). Feminism and Geography. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Scott, A., et. al. (1999). Women and the Internet: the natural history of a research project. Information Communication and Society 2 (4), 541-565.

Seabrook, T. (2000). Streetwise or safe: girls negotiating time and space. Unpublished paper presented at the BSA Annual Conference, 2000.

Shade, L. (1998). A Gendered Perspective on Access to the Information Infrastructure. The Information Society 14:33-44, 1998.

Spender, D. (1995). Nattering on the net: Women, power and cyberspace. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Tester, S .(1996). Women and Community Care. in Hallett, C. (Ed.). Women and Social Policy Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Titmuss, R. M. (1968). Commitment to Welfare. London: Allen & Unwin.

Walker, G. (2000). Editorial News on Community Networking. in Newcastle upon Tyne and Beyond Online, Issue 1, March 2000

Williams F (1993) 'Women and community' in Bornat J et. al. (eds) Community Care: a reader Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd.

What's inside...

© Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
P.O. Box 717
Palo Alto, CA 94302-0717
Tel. (650) 322-3778
Fax (650) 322-3798

the end [ top ] Newsletter Index
Archived CPSR Information
Created before October 2004

Sign up for CPSR announcements emails


International Chapters -

> Canada
> Japan
> Peru
> Spain

USA Chapters -

> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

I want to be part of the solution. I think CPSR is working to guide society in the proper creation and use of technology.