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Virtual Gender: Technology, Consumption and Identity

Editor: Eileen Green, Alison Adam
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: February 2003

 REVIEW 1: Monica Whitty
 REVIEW 2: Andrew Dalton

Why have previous attempts to improve women's access to Information and Communication failed? Is the Internet a white male playground? What are some women's experiences with respect to sexual harassment and cyberstalking and what effect has this on their usage of the Internet? How do women feel about technology? How are women and men depicted in MOOs and is gender switching a common experience of all MOO participants? Virtual Gender, edited by Eileen Green and Alison Adam, addresses these questions and many more.

Virtual Gender is a collection of papers that were put together for a special issue of the journal of Information, Communication and Society. In addition, there are a few chapters that were specially commissioned for this book. While past books on gender and technology have focused largely on anecdotal evidence to support authors' theories on the intersection of gender and technology (e.g., Cherny and Weise, 1996), this book takes a more critical stance. It is a selection of both theoretical and empirical (qualitative and quantitative) papers, whose authors come from a variety of disciplines, including communications, computer science, education, information systems, psychology, social science, sociology, speech communication, theology, and women's studies. The book tackles both contemporary and provocative issues. It should, however, be pointed out that the title is a little deceiving, as the focus is concentrated more on women than it is on men, and draws heavily from feminist theory.

The book is divided into three sections. Part I, "Gender Access and Experiences of ICTs and the Internet," begins with Anne Scott, Lesley Semmens, and Lynette Willoughby's chapter on "Women and the Internet." Rather than generating answers (as the authors originally expected would come from this research), the chapter reports new questions that emerged from the authors' pilot study. Questions such as: "How much have the Internet's military-industrial origins actually influenced women's current future relationships with this technology?" and "Is there any point in talking globally about women's relationship to the Internet?" Chapter 2 by Greg Michaelson and Margit Pohl considers gender in email-based co-operative problem solving. Interestingly, they found no gender differences in problem-solving which occurs through email. This research contradicts past research which has found that women often given up participating in newsgroups because of the lack of positive feedback (Herring, 1996). Based on their results Michaelson and Pohl propose that we might need to make a distinction in our research between private and public discussions that take place online. Chapter 3 by Kate White, Leslie Regan Shade, and Jennifer Brayton provides a critique of the 'Lives and Livelihoods' pilot project, which consisted of two day retreats held in Canada and Africa and focused on "how men and women conceive of ICTs" (47). Linda Stepulevage, in Chapter 4, reflects on her own experience as a child considering "how a young girl might develop a familiarity with technology as part of every-day living" (63). The section's final chapter is by Gillian Youngs who considers the intersection of virtual communication and international politics by focusing on the Society for International Development Women on the Net (WoN) project.

Part II is titled "Leisure, Pleasure and Consumption." In the section's first chapter, Simeon Yates and Karen Littleton examine gender differences in computer game interactions. The authors contend that it is important that we consider computer gaming from a cultural and social perspective. To achieve this, they emphatically argue that researchers must investigate the "subject position of being an active gamer" (120). Chapter 7 by Michele White draws from feminist theory to look at 'the gaze' in MOOs. In this chapter, White gives some interesting insights into how bodies are constructed with this online space and considers differences between the way men and women's bodies are portrayed and viewed by the MOOs participants. Nicola Green in Chapter 8 discusses "how virtual reality technologies produce gender in specific sites" (150). Green cites work from her ethnographic study on immersive virtual reality systems in order to achieve this aim. Eileen Green in Chapter 9 considers the use of ICT's in the home. In particular, Green examines women's space and time for leisure and how ICTs might be used in women's everyday lives. In Chapter 10, Maria Lohan takes a unique angle by arguing that "in order to understand gender and information communication technologies, we need also to turn the camera angles on this implicit relationship between men and technology" (190). She provides some delightful examples from her qualitative research on men's narratives of the integration (or non-integration) of the telephone in their everyday lives.

Part III is titled "Citizens at Work and in the Community." The section's first chapter is by Alison Adam who uses feminist ethics and feminist theory to discuss cyberstalking, which is a severe form of online sexual harassment. Chapter 12 by Maria Vehvilšinen focuses on the NiceNet group and its home pages. The NiceNet group is a Finnish group of women from various socio-economic backgrounds who meet together in a neighbourhood centre. This paper explores the practices of citizenship in the information society by examining this group of women. In Chapter 13, Els Rommes, Ellen van Oost, and Nelly Oudshoorn examine the construction of the Digital City of Amsterdam, or 'De Digitale Stad' (DDS). They discuss why this space is occupied by more than 90% men, even though the designers had originally intended to create a space on the Internet accessible to a much wider public.

The book concludes with a section on "Identity and self." In chapter 14, Roberts and Parks begin with the popular topic of gender-switching on the Internet. These authors draw from their empirical research on MOOs and make the distinction between social MOOs and role-playing MOOs. Lynne Roberts and Malcolm Parks found that gender-switching is only practiced by a minority of MOO uses and that this behavior is relatively infrequent. They argue that their results "offer little ammunition for those who argue that online interaction is being used to 'break the binaries' in our approaches to gender" (280). Chapter 15 deals with the often referred to Web site, JenniCAM, a site where freelance web designer Jenny Ringley features images of herself via a webcam stationed in her bedroom 24 hours a day, every day since its inception in April 1996. Erissi Jimroglou draws from feminist theory to consider gender and identity in respect to this cyborg subject. Finally, in Chapter 16, Elaine Graham considers the validity of Haraway's preference to be a cyborg rather than a goddess. Graham utilizes Irigaray's work to provide a critique of Haraway's notion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the amount of variety and diversity this book has to offer. It would appeal to researchers from a number of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, cultural studies, gender studies, computing science, and communication studies. While these papers on gender are intriguing and insightful I believe that at least some of these papers should be read while being mindful of Hare-Mustin and Marecek's (1988) paper, which proposes that "difference is a problematic and paradoxical way to construe gender . . . Both take the male as the standard of comparison and support the status quo. Both construct gender as attributes of individuals, not as the ongoing relations of men and women, particularly relations of domination . . . Constructing gender is a process, not an answer" (462). Moreover, sometimes when we set out to examine gender differences, we forget some of the important gender similarities.

Cherny, L., & Weise, E. R. (1996). Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. USA: Seal Press.

Hare-Mustin, R. T. & Marecek, J. (1988). The Meaning of Difference: Gender Theory, Postmodernism, and Psychology. American Psychologist 43 (6): 455-464.

Herring, S. (1996). Two Variants of an Electronic Message Schema. In S. Herring (Ed.). Computer-Mediated Communication. Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, pp. 81-106. Amsterdam/Philadephia: John Benjamin Publishing Company.

Monica Whitty:
Monica Whitty is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Western Sydney. Her current research interests include: Internet relationships, with a focus on the development and maintenance of online romantic relationships, lying online, flirting, and infidelity; Online sexual harassment including cyberstalking; privacy and surveillance issues in the Australian workplace; virtual ethics; and young people's narratives of their ideal selves. 

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