Quick confession - before I started researching this article I'd never logged on to the Internet. Yet I'm a pioneer among my friends and, to an extent, among women in general. Statistics suggest that only 20 to 25 per cent of users in the UK are women; in the US the figure is roughly 10 per cent higher. And when it comes to the Web, the figures are bleaker.
The latest self-selecting survey over the Web conducted by IDC located only four per cent of female users in the UK, five per cent in Europe as a whole and 20 per cent in the US. And a study by Internet World publisher VNU found that 95.4 per cent of its Internet-using readership was male.
The traditional view is that women have never been at the forefront of technology. "It's much the same as hi-fi and CB radio," suggests Carl Christensen of Web design company Domino Systems. "The male species tends to hog these kinds of things first." Eva Pascoe, managing director of the Cyberia cafe chain, is forced to agree: "We opened Cyberia as a women-only service in September 1994. In the first month we attracted four women a day." In Pascoe's view, the fair sex has never been taught to enjoy technology. "Most technology has been created to automate work and women always get the worst edge of it," she says. She cites keyboard operators and secretaries - clerics used to be men but now women do much of the word processing.
A straw poll of the ISPs shows that women have never figured highly in their marketing strategies. It makes economic sense to target the techies first - who are, by and large, male. When Demon launched in the UK it made it clear that non-technical users needn't apply - the cost of support was too high. It's only now that the large providers can afford to think about attracting the less savvy among us.
But the goalposts are shifting. From the analysts, the ISPs and the advertisers, the message is clear - the Net is growing at a staggering rate and women will be at the crest of the second wave of development. US analysts Forrester predict that the number of women on the Internet will triple to more than 18 million by the year 2000. "It's evolving naturally," says Judith Coley, corporate communications director at AOL UK. "Like the phone, everyone will be using it eventually. And the profiling will be very strong. The marketers will be able to say, women online are attracted by such and such. The future is female."
Coley subscribes to the school of thought that the balance will tip altogether in the next six to 12 months. Pascoe agrees. "Ninety-nine per cent of graphic designers are women. The next phase will be designed by women," is her confident prediction.
It smacks a little of that Ikea advert, the "chuck out that chintz" one - are women about to throw out their net curtains and march wholesale onto the Net instead? Given the statistic, it sounds a little incredible.
But then, the female user base is showing stronger signs of growth than the figures would have us believe. Sisters are doing it for themselves but they are doing so within the boundaries of gender stereotypes. Coley explains: "Our raw customer records show a family model where the man buys and pays. But AOL provides up to five screen names with each account and that's where the female is likely to be hiding. Forty per cent of our subscribers in the US are female."
An increasing amount of female-targeted content is appearing on the Web yet for most women the meat of the matter is not the Web but the Internet itself. The Net is still used most for email and around 17 per cent of users regularly visit chat forums. And this is where women are making their presence felt online.
It's a fact - women love to talk. Most chat forums have noticed their female participants creep up to roughly 50 per cent over the last year or so. Cyberia's women customers, who represent roughly half the customer base, generally spend 25 minutes of their half-hour chunks on email and chat and only five minutes browsing the Web. Men spend longer looking at content. Easynet, the provider used by the cafe, has plenty of content aimed at women - news, showbiz gossip and fashion - but, Pascoe admits: "It's wrong to think that women are interested in content for women. We're interested in what we're interested in."
The gender roles haven't changed that much, Pascoe thinks: "I don't know anyone who hasn't been seduced by romance online but the telling thing is chat. There's a cognitive value in gossip. It's still up to women to maintain relationships, for instance, which is why they need to talk more."
Let's look at women and computers in general for a moment. Computers haveb't always been a "boy's thing". The first computer programmer was a woman - Ada Lovelace, who on the Analytical Engine in the middle of the last century. Programmers during World War II were nearly all women.
And today's content providers and design agencies are certainly not male-dominated.
Look at women at work. Female accountants, lawyers, hairdressers and healthcare workers all use the Internet regularly for research. It's in leisure use that the differences are most obvious. It was the home PC that made computing into a male domain and, paradoxically, the rise of computing in schools.
Which brings us to the argument that women aren't interested in computers per se, only in what they can do. '"Women aren't turned on by tinkering - they just want functionality," says AOL's Coley.
The fact that the Internet has become easier to use could account for the upturn in female users. The new generation of icon-based systems are proving attractive to women who have specific requirements of the Internet but don't want any hassle. Pascoe flaunts her own brand of "techno-eco-feminism" - developing the technology to suit the women - and judging by the success of Cyberia's jargon-free, women-only training sessions, this could be the key.
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According to the advertisers, the Web is still too much in its infancy for women to figure as a target audience. "For many brands, having a dialogue with customers is a new thing," explains Charles Fallon, managing consultant at Saatchi & Saatchi.
At Ogilvy & Mather, digital communcations manager Jane Ostler agrees.
"People like housewives are very much part of the next phase," she says.
Like Saatchi, O&M is more interested in building a picture of its audience than targeting it over the Web. "It doesn't matter how many women are using the Web as long as you build up a substantial picture of the women on there," explains Ostler. "Things will change soon enough with cable TV and digital TV - more people will be accessing the Web and women will be among them."
Women are just getting used to the Web so it will take a while for the Web to get used to them. For now, what the ISPs need to know is that women are selective in their usage and they want things to be simple.
And for whatever reason, they are spending less time online than their male counterparts. Friday night at Cyberia is definitely not ladies' night.
At the end of the week the place is full of men. Where are the women?
Chatting to their friends face to face, presumably.
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