November 2003

‘Women can combat gender bias in cyberspace’

Views: 235

Dale Spender, one of Australia's best-known feminists, urges all women to get on the information superhighway, use it and claim it as their own space.

By Pamela Bhagat
Women's Feature Service

BRISBANE: When Dr Dale Spender is scheduled to arrive at an appointed venue, the stationery and drapes are all exchanged for purple – the colour of women's protest. Purple is her chosen colour. For over 30 years now, everything she wears – her pants and blouse, sneakers, watch and glasses – is purple. Spender is one of Australia's best-known feminist scholars. An engaging speaker who never fails to provide journalists with pithy quotes, she travels to seminars, conferences and academic institutions both at home and abroad speaking about her feminist philosophy on the media. A philosophy she backs with hard empirical research.

Spender wears many hats – Internet expert, educational consultant, writer and teacher – and describes herself as a 'reformed academic'. She now has her own business and counts many universities as her clients. Her companies, Digital Style and AHOOT (Ahead Of Our Time), are primarily information brokerages that identify knowledge gaps and needs and make knowledge products that are tailored to the specific needs of her clients.

Her many books – she has written and edited over 30 books – including Man Made Language (1980), For the Record: The Making and Meaning of Feminist Knowledge (1985) and Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers (1988). Her latest book, Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace (1995), is a pioneering work on the new media that has changed the way people think about computers. Spender, however, is not entirely satisfied. She believes it suffers from the limitations of the print medium. “Statistics stand there as an indictment when there have been so many transformations,” she says.

Speaking at an international workshop on Women and the Media, held in Brisbane recently, Spender said that the information revolution has shifted from print to digital. She drew a parallel with the manner in which the development of the printing press had impacted society and social change. All communication media so far – cave paintings, lectures, television – have all been one way, she said. The Internet is interactive and information here is dynamic and changeable. Power flows from information control and always has. The Net, though, is not controlled. Consequently, information flows freely and wealth flows from information. She suggests that small businesses based on new technology like the Internet present new opportunities.

In this context, Spender also stresses on the need for a gender audit of all media. This, she says, should be structured to reveal how women are projected, how their voices are amplified and also how women's issues are mainstreamed as general interest issues.

Initially, Spender was very interested in the way women talked in a male-dominated society. Her research revealed that in almost every mixed sex conversation, men talked for two-thirds of the time. This told her a lot about language and power, about who has the right to talk. Man Made Language was the result of this research. She inferred that it was not that men had better ideas; the fact was that they had more power and could ensure that their ideas were taken more seriously.

She says that these patterns were disrupted in print when women's version of experiences began to appear. White, male narratives ceased to be the only authority and became part of many competing realities. “It was almost as if the knowledge-making world was preparing itself for the multiple realities and information explosion of the digital age.” Her sense of satisfaction soon gave way to doubt. It became quite clear that one of the reasons women had finally made it into print was because print was no longer the primary information medium.

Power had moved to the digital medium and, within a decade, information sources had migrated from the book to the screen. There is a power shift from the author – who provided and controlled a single version and set narrative – to the user who actually uses the author's contribution. The page has readers but the screen has users. Spender spoke of a future when Internet access would be as necessary and as common as water, electricity or telephones. This is why, she warned, women must not allow themselves to be marginalized on the digital stage.

“The Net is changing the nature of wealth which flows from information. Today, information is not a control issue but a management issue – something that women have always excelled at.” 

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