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Men versus women

By Rosie Williams - posted Tuesday, 8 March 2011


I've been following the discussion on the topic of the low participation rates of women contributing to Wikipedia on the Wikipedia Gendergap Mailing List and in the media (see Twitter chat readings).

Much of the discussion has sought to clarify the differences between women and men in how we communicate and specific incidents of female victimisation by men (see Datamation article). The examples that I have seen relate to women participating in public conferences in IT, mostly programming, often in the Open Source community. Many complaints relate to inappropriate sexual referencing in public presentations at conferences, incidents of threatened or alleged inappropriate sexual behaviour and people reporting that they have been victimised due to their online interactions including involvement with Wikipedia.

While not seeking to invalidate any of these experiences, I have noticed an absense of any examination of how women treat other women. Most examples in the media appear to involve professional women engaging in activities related directly or indirectly to their career in male-dominated industries. If one reads this media there is an overwhelming sense that there is an undertone of menace and/or disrespect experienced by women who participate in geek culture and professions.

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I am not a professional woman in this sense. I can not speak to how women experience these environments and I have only limited experience with Wikipedia and am yet to find this behaviour (which does not imply I never will). What I do have quite considerable experience with is how women treat other women. Having been a single mother from the age of 19, having raised (and educated) my son on welfare, the experience of my life - both as a child and an adult - has involved negative experiences with both genders. 

As a child I spent my school years being subjected to social exclusion and sustained bouts of teasing and social abuse from both boys and girls based on my not being 'girly' enough. As an adult, I have spent the last 20 years overcoming the exclusionary behaviours of partnered women who also exercised social exclusion to the point of refusing to interact with me and as a result also with my child due to my not being partnered. For a society which is one of our most advanced, in which our feminists (in the least) would have us believe that women no longer need to be partnered to be accepted within society it is quite another question to experience the lived reality of being a long term single woman and mother. 

The point I wish to make about these experiences is not to defend men as I have little reason in my experience to do so but to point out that the idea that men alone police women's behaviour, perceived morality and appearence is quite illegitimate and that in fact it is women who are often the 'front line' in the systematic socialisation of girls and women in western democracies. 

Women may indeed be acting within the patriarchal culture laid down for us by men and abusing other women as a result of our own fears for ourselves within it eg competing with other women for men, excluding women we feel threaten our dependency on (male/patriachal) social capital, gossiping about women's perceived morality, etc. Women are as cable as any man of creating and carrying out smear campaigns and it is usually other girls or women who are the victims of such behaviour.

For this reason I feel it important to acknowledge that women as well as men are responsible for their actions. Women make choices about which cultural norms they feel, out of fear, unable to challenge. And of course women can act independently to behave in ways that they perceive furthers their own career in the atomistic individualist cultural millieu that constitutes our western tradition. In many ways this has become the new way to be a woman.

Not that women were ever incapable of competing with one another, however, the professional woman, successful in the male fashion has become our standard of female success (other than in 'low culture'). Motherhood is still considered unskilled, 'unproductive', an embarrassment or even diametrially opposed to what feminism is seen to be about. On a national policy level we are now attempting to mitigate for our declining fertility rates - the ultimate consequence of the lack of cultural, policy and economic support of parenting. 

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In this debate about the gender gap on Wikipedia I have read a lot about nastiness attributed to men and its effect on women. I am not invalidating that women can and do feel intimidated when interacting with men, especially when the gender balance favours men and even sometimes when it does not. What I am not seeing in this debate is acknowledgement that women also play a mighty role in judging and therefore controlling appearance, pereceived morality and ultimately the behaviour of other women. 

If we are going to call men out on their behaviour as agents of the patriarchy then we must also call out ourselves. Men are no less influenced and controlled by patriarchal culture, traditions and systems as are women. I would go so far as to say that it is unrealistic of us to expect men to free themselves of the rewards and punishments of patriarchy when we as women find it so difficult not to play along, enjoy the rewards and participate in the same punishments.

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Rosie Williams is the founder of BudgetAus the first implementation of the entire federal budget in an online searchable database.

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