Like a Girl

Some things never change. For example, I've hated iPods ever since I bought my first one a few years ago and suffered the irritating iTunes crash that destroyed $100 worth of music I'd bought online. Yet I continue to buy iPods. I also continue to use Microsoft Windows on a regular basis, despite the fact that it's a rotten proprietary operating system. Here's another thing that has never changed about me:

I just can't seem to act like a girl, even when I go on the Internet.

I know this because I just read the Pew Internet and American Life Project's latest study, which reports on how women and men use the Internet. It turns out, for example, that men are more likely than women to go online several times a day, to "have heard about the latest tech-related issues," and to use the Internet for pleasure reading. Women, however, are more likely than men to use the Internet for e-mail and what the report's author Deborah Fallows calls "nurturing their relationships."

Of the many puzzling findings in this study, one of the most inexplicable is that women's activities constitute "nurturing a relationship," whereas what men do online doesn't. In a section of the study that asserts that men engage in "more activities" than women online, Fallows uses as examples men's participation in Fantasy Baseball, fan clubs, chat rooms, and reputation-based Web sites like Slashdot.org. Why don't any of these things count as "nurturing a relationship"? All of them are social activities, even personal ones.

There are problems like this all over Pew's study, moments when you can tell its author wanted to place her findings within the context of prevailing gender stereotypes. One section describes men as being "more aggressive" in their use of the Internet because they describe themselves as looking for a wider variety of information online than women do, and because only 19 percent of men feel overwhelmed by information glut (as opposed to 24 percent of women). I'd hesitate to call seeking a wide variety of information "aggressive," just as I would hesitate to call women's greater enjoyment of e-mail "nurturing."

Despite its shortcomings, Fallows's research overwhelmingly shows that women and men tend to use the Internet just as often, and often for the same kinds of things. Women are even surpassing men in many areas: Women under 29 are more likely than men of that age to go online. Women of all ages are more likely to use online maps and file-sharing services than men are; they also play games and watch videos online more than men do.

However, when it comes to confidence in their prowess as users of the Internet and as computer experts, women do lag far behind. It's telling that one measure Fallows uses to determine that men are "more aggressive" online is not objective but rather subjective. Men simply feel more strongly that what they do online is effective than women do. "Significantly more men are confident in themselves as searchers and geeks," Fallows writes. They are also "more likely to try new gadgets and applications and software."

These findings are what I'd call the tragedy of gender. Normally I would protest vociferously upon reading a study that proclaims women are somehow less geeky than men or that they have less interest in technology. But these findings ring true in a way that's sad and chilling. What we're seeing here is a difference in the way men and women perceive themselves in the realm of technology. Women may be doing almost the same things that men are on the Internet, but they're more timid about proclaiming it. And this timidity ultimately leads to discouragement -- it prevents women from feeling like they're proficient enough with technology to try new gadgets; it stays their hands when they have the urge to open up their computers and tear them apart to find out what makes them go.

The good news is that all those younger women who are swarming online in greater numbers than men will teach their daughters and younger sisters that women are as technically adept as men. They may not believe they are geeks, but their behavior will say otherwise. Here's hoping the next generation learns by seeing what we do, instead of by what we say about ourselves.

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