Virtual or computer mediated networking allows users to contact and develop ties with individuals via Internet methods, including, but not limited to Web pages, email, chat rooms and online communities. There already exist many women’s organizations with specialized websites geared towards supporting entrepreneurs and professionals. Two prominent examples are Working Women’s Network and Women’s Forum. Through such means, women business owners can look to others for social, support, strategic, supply and learning purposes (Wood 1999).
Virtual networking offers businesswomen many advantages over traditional face-to-face networking, and this perhaps explains their proliferation worldwide (Travers et al, 1997). Firstly, virtual means ofnetworking provide instant access to individuals on a global basis, and are available 24 hours a day (Knouse and Webb 2001). This means that women with domestic or other responsibilities are provided with greater flexibility in how and when they develop and maintain networks. Whilst asynchronous, computer mediated communication approximates real time interaction, allowing for fast, convenient communications at low costs (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991). Additionally, virtual communities can provide access to a very large number of diverse others and network maintenance is substantially easier and less costly than face-to-face interaction (Lind, 1999).
Because of the benefits of virtual networking, several commentators have suggested that businesswomen use them to access “larger numbers of same sex and same race contacts, thus increasing the similarity or homophily of the network” (Knouse and Webb, 2001: 227). But, as argued above, homophily is not a desired trait in the networks of the nontraditional female entrepreneur. There is no reason why these women should not utilize Internet groups as a way of overcoming the challenges of cross-sex networking. Indeed, the features of virtual networks – the anonymous, decontextualized, ephemeral, asynchronous communication – appear to present to nontraditional women a convenient means of overcoming problems associated with their gender. Below, the very small, but growing body of studies that offer empirical support for this suggestion are reviewed.
Almost twenty years ago, Sproull and Kiesler (1991: 13) predicted that new technological ways of working would have equalizing effects, allowing people to “cross barriers of space, time and social category to share expertise, opinions and ideas”. This is because “when communication lacks the dynamic personal information of face-to-face communication or even of telephone communication, people focus their attention more on the words in the message than on each other. Communicators feel a greater sense of anonymity and detect less individuality in others. They feel less empathy, less guilt, less concern over how they compare with others and are less influenced by social conventions” (ibid: 40). In particular, the removal of nonverbal cues and the ephemerality and plainness of text-speak reduces people’s fears of appearing foolish or inferior to others and increases self-confidence. In face-to – face interaction, high-status people (often men) tend to dominate group discussions (Carli 2006), but research shows that online interaction gives peripheral individuals a voice, allowing them more of a chance to contribute equally (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991).
Martin and Wright (2005) argue that the internet-based technology is a “great equalizer” which allows women nontraditional entrepreneurs to compete on a level playing field with their male counterparts. Their discussions with ten women operating small ICT firms revealed a great degree of appreciation for a technology that allowed its users to appear ‘invisible’. The women respondents were said to be able to run high technology firms regardless of the usual barriers of gender because “people don’t realize you’re women and take you more seriously – they judge you as a business no as an individual” (Martin and Wright, 2005: 170). For example, women were more easily able to find suppliers for key services using internet based methods, and links that began as virtual contacts, over time became stronger, face – to-face interaction. As one respondent (a software developer) to that study stated, “In space no-one can hear you scream? In cyberspace no-one can tell if you’re male or female – you are another web presence” (ibid: 172).
Popular tomes on communication like John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus or Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation maintain that women and men have distinctive communication styles that create barriers ofunderstanding between them. The anonymity and fact that communication does not take place in real time may allow virtual networkers to experiment with different forms of self-representation. Thomson (2006a;
2006b) argues both men and women use gender typical language patterns when interacting with networks partners of the same sex, and this flexibility smoothes communication. Additionally, in lab-based and real-life experiments, Thomson (2006a) found that when discussing gendered topics, participants accommodated to an expected language style in order to gain acceptance or approval. There was a higher frequency of female preferential features (e. g. personal features, emotion, question asking, agreement, apology, compliment, self-derogatory statements, solidarity with others) in discussions about female stereotypical topics and a higher frequency of male-typed features in discussions about male stereotypical topics (directives, disagreement, insult, adjectives, statements emphasizing differences between group members). Thus, women appear ‘male’ when discussing male-typed topics with male network partners in online environments. This is because when gender markers are hidden, the topic of conversation, rather than individual gender, becomes the salient group norm. This finding may explain why women in male-dominated companies communicate with colleagues via email to a significantly greater extent than do men (Lind 2001; Brosnan 2006).
O’Brien (1999) too argues that online interactions offer individuals the opportunity to dislocate gender from its corporeal markers. In the absence of embodied characteristics, the effects of social categories of difference (sex, race, social status) on interaction are effectively erased. Thus, cyberspace allows people to cross the boundaries conventionally imposed by bodily physicality. By disguising their gender online, women business owners can conduct business activity in ways typically associated with male assertiveness, without paying the penalties that social psychologists predict in face-to-face interaction. Lind’s (1999) comparison of mixed sex virtual and face-to-face work groups showed that women were more satisfied with the virtual work group, and perceived levels of cohesion, support and inclusiveness to be higher. Lind attributed these findings to the more equal group participation facilitated by the lack of nonverbal cues and structure of the virtual workgroups. Cohen and Ellis (2008) also found evidence of more equal participation of women and men postgraduates in virtual learning environments.
Finally, and from a more practical point of view, forging virtual associations allows women who may be juggling domestic responsibilities the opportunity to build networks in their own time (Blisson and Kaur Rana, 2001). Researchers have suggested that women business owners suffer a ‘network deficit’ because the demands of motherhood and other caring duties deprives them of the time to build social capital (Munch, McPherson et al. 1997). This problem is exacerbated in the case of the non-traditional entrepreneur because business owners operated in male-typed sectors work significantly longer weekly hours than business owners in female-typed sectors (Sappleton, 2009).
In spite of the promise of virtual networking, others have argued that the belief that gender is invisible online is a myth because the language that users employ is itself gendered. Herring (1996) cites “netiquette”, or the accepted norms of online conduct as an example demonstrating this. Beliefs about the proper way to communicate online are founded on systems of values and expectations that vary from individual to individual, “yet it is typically the most powerful or dominant group whose values take on a normative status” (Herring, 1996: 115). Thus, the default guidelines for netiquette in mixed-sex online communities encourage male-typed behaviours (candor, debate, freedom from rules and imposition), and discourage and devalue female-typed behaviours (politeness, consideration for others, support and helpful advice). Herring concludes that these partially incompatible systems of values regarding online conduct and expectations of others exaggerates gender differences, provokes male-female conflicts, and has implications for how comfortable women feel in mainstream electronic forums.
Others (Wellman, Salaaf et al. 1996) have argued that online invisibility is undermined by intrinsic cues to social identity (for example usernames, servers, email addresses, signatures and so on) or gendered language styles. Brosnan (2006) suggests that although email messages purport to dissociate the sender from her identity, the content of emails remain gendered. He argues that, because of sex-role socializaton, women respond to the facelessness of email by attempting to reproduce the socio-emotional elements of face-to-face interaction. Thus, women’s emails are more polite than men’s are; they are more supportive and affect-laden they make greater use of emoticons. On the other hand, men’s emails are efficient, short, and concise. In making recommendations to female users in male-dominated organisations, Brosnan suggests that they should refuse to have an email account, and keep emails to male colleagues short and concise (“an average of 5 to 13 words is normal” (Brosnan, 2006: 266) but that female-to-female email communication should remain unaltered.
The last decade has seen an unprecedented growth in the number ofwomen-owned firms operating in typically male industry locations. Like all entrepreneurs, these women must include networking as part of their regular business activities if their organizations are to thrive. Indeed, a proliferation of women’s business networks has paralleled the growth in nontraditional enterprises. The popularity of all-female social networks at both the organizational and extra-organizational level can be accounted for by the principle of homophily, as well as women’s historical exclusion from ‘old boys’ networks’ (Fisher 2004). However, this chapter has contended that while these networks fulfill important expressive roles, the instrumental function ofwomen-only networks may be less successful. Because there are relatively few women in prominent roles in nontraditional industries, face-to-face networks may not include a critical mass of women who can provide much-needed information, resources and gateways to powerful others (Knouse and Webb, 2001). The alternative course of action – forging links with male colleagues and counterparts – might be similarly unproductive because of gender stereotyping. The result may be that women nontraditional business owners are locked into a damned-if-they-do- damned-if-they-don’t situation – termed here the segregation/stereotyping bind.
This chapter has considered ways in which virtual networking might aid nontraditional women business owners in overcoming this bind to build collaborative working relations with all-important male ties. A review of the literature suggests that online networking gives nontraditional women entrepreneurs more power over self-representation and “gendered language”, thereby enabling relationships to develop that might otherwise have been stunted because of gender stereotyping. In particular, the anonymity of computer-based networking offers the greatest potential to empower women who are in a minority in their field. As the markers of gender are weakened, true competences and abilities can be recognized, independent of position or appearance (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991). Additionally, the flexibility and convenience of this media may assist women in establishing connections with prestigious or powerful others in their own time.