The Virginian-Pilot
                            THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT  
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, July 17, 1994                  TAG: 9407190535
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  206 lines


JEAN KORB SPORTS 20 years of computer experience - dating back to the dark ages of punch cards - and owns a computer-related business. Yet Korb is still traveling at below-limit speeds on the infobahn of cyberspace, trying to overcome her self-professed intimidation.

``Even though I know an awful lot about computers, when I'm on the Internet, I don't know what's on the other end. It's a little bit like taking a step into space,'' says the Portsmouth woman.

But she's growing stronger every day, using her Internet account in business-related ways. ``I can spend six hours at the library or an hour on Internet,'' she says. She uses it to communicate with her business peers around the country and is exploring how to develop and distribute software products on the Net.

``I believe in three years if I don't do this, I'll be at a competitive disadvantage,'' she said.

And so will most women. Unfortunately, most women aren't traveling along the information superhighway as often as they should.

Estimates are that major on-line forums like Compuserve and America On-Line are about 10 percent to 15 percent women; local bulletin board systems have even fewer female members.

The roadblocks are many, notes Hoai-An Truong, a member of BAWiT Bay Area Women in Telecommunications, a San Francisco-based organization. Members meet in person and electronically to discuss women's professional and social issues in computer networking, including industry-gender bias.

In a paper published on the Internet last year, Truong noted several barriers that block women's on-line access, including:

Less disposable income (computers and modems are expensive).

Lack of physical access (technical fields with their subsidized entryways into cyberspace are predominately male).

Social issues: Women are still the predominant caregivers for their children and usually bear the brunt of household chores - they simply don't have time to learn to navigate on-line systems.

But an even greater deterrent for nontechnical users, she said, is the perception of usefulness. Women need to see the concrete benefits of using the system.

This last issue gets right to the heart of gender differences in the way men and women use computers and travel in cyberspace.

``Men use it mainly to network, to get up and find out what's going on. They're just curious,'' says Katherine Hennessey, professor of information systems at Texas Tech University. ``Women tend to go up on Internet to get something, to achieve something; they're much more goal-oriented in using cyberspace.''

Susan Ross, an assistant professor of technical communications at Clarkson University in upstate New York, uses the Net to receive copies of lawsuits and judges' decisions in her field of telecommunications law virtually as they're filed, and to follow cyberculture issues that are slow to reach traditional media.

But she also takes advantage of the relatively genderless cyberspace to gain entry into places it would take numerous phone calls to otherwise reach.

``I can get information I need quickly without, for example, administrative assistants protecting the boss from my question because I call with a female - i.e., unimportant - voice.''

Even with that physical anonymity, notes Truong in her paper, many women find that gender follows them into the on-line community, setting a tone for their public and private interactions there - to such an extent that some purposefully choose gender neutral identities, or refrain from expressing their opinions.

Hennessey has one women friend who uses the cyberhandle, ``Fearless Freddy.'' ``Everyone interacts with her like a bunch of jocks, transmitting swear words and using all kinds of male terms to express technical things that they wouldn't use if they were talking to a woman,'' she said. ``Women in cyberspace become empowered because no one knows for sure what gender the other person is at the other end.''

They know Laura Griffin's gender. The Norfolk woman writes a regular column for the local bulletin board Mindgames called ``Lovelite.''

It's about her own quirky, kind of naive, view of life.

And it's something that five years ago, she never thought she'd be doing.

Griffin had never touched a computer keyboard until four years ago, when her 21-year-old son graduated high school.

She told her husband she wanted a computer. He told her she didn't need one.

So she went to Price Club and bought a 286 IBM clone. And then taught herself how to use it.

One Christmas a couple of years later, her husband gave her a modem. ``What in the heck is this for?'' she asked. And then she set out to find out.

These days, Griffin spends an average of two hours a day on line. She travels the superhighway of cyberspace - the Internet - with ease, zooming off ramps into other computers, burrowing into their files and downloading programs and other files onto her own disks, which fill a row of fabric-covered boxes in her attic office.

``It's like going to another country for me,'' she says of her favorite pastime, FTPing (File Transfer Protocol). ``My worst fear is that I'll die before I find out everything that's out there.''

She's so addicted, she says, that her beach reading is the DOS 6.2 manual and the Internet Yellow Pages. ``People look at me like I'm crazy,'' she laughs.

She's passcoded entry into her computer - so her two college-aged sons can't access it - and it's Mom the boys bring their own systems to for reconfiguring. Dad, an investment banker, has no idea how to find his way around the inside of a computer.

Which is just fine with her.

``It's become my thing, my hobby, my time to do what I want.''

Griffin has found a whole new identity and network of friends via her cyberspace travels. She's gained in confidence, even done some private tutoring on computer-related issues.

Once a week, she and other Mindgames members meet at a restaurant in Virginia Beach for drinks and lots of computer conversation. She goes alone, without her husband.

And she bristles at recent media stories that paint women as potential ``victims'' in cyberspace, subject to ``virtual'' stalkings, assaults and even rapes.

``If I hear one more time that I will be stalked or raped or talked nothing but sex, I will be ready to turn in the PC,'' she said.

``If women demand respect, they will give it to you. If you encourage anything, they'll take a double entendre as far as it can go.''

Sasha Tomey of Knotts Island, N.C., is not as blase as Griffin about women's safety in cyberspace. ``Women need to be very careful who they give their personal information to,'' she warns. ``These things are so available, you don't know who's running the system or who sees that information; and there is no such thing as private mail.''

Tomey started her information highway travels nine years ago, when her first child was just an infant. She came home from church one day to find her husband debating some religious issue on a local bulletin board. She saw what he was doing, pushed him off the chair and picked up the thread.

She hasn't stopped since.

What intrigues her, she says, is the sharing of ideas. ``Here I was at home with this little baby, trying my wings as a writer, and here I had adult conversation coming in every day. I don't know how I would have gotten through some of those days of bad weather and February flu without it.''

Since then, she and her husband have started and stopped their own bulletin board (``we called it the worst bulletin board anyone would ever call - guaranteed to crash several times a week''), had another baby, and she launched a career as a free-lance writer.

She's had problems twice. One time, a man she met on a local bulletin board came to her house for a party she and her husband hosted to meet the bulletin board members. After that, he started sending her suggestive mail, calling her at home and driving over to her house. Thankfully, his harassment stopped without her interfering.

Another time a man she corresponded with from another state was visiting and asked her to lunch. She said yes, looking forward to the conversation. But before he arrived, he sent her several lewd suggestions, and she told him she wouldn't meet him. Luckily, he didn't have her address, real name or phone number.

Hilve Firek of Norfolk has only had one somewhat negative experience - when she logged onto a multi-user game board to play a Star-Trek game and several users asked if she was male or female. ``Why?'' she asked.

If you're female, you'll get hit on, came the answer.

``OK, then I'm not,'' she said. She finished her game, then logged out and has never visited since.

The 28-year-old schoolteacher - who never goes to bed without first checking her E-mail - got hooked through PEN, the Virginia Public Education Network. She's also on-line on Delphi (to play games) and America On-Line (for its English teacher's forum). When her first bill from Delphi came in at $100, however, her husband stepped in and told her to cool it.

Still, she spends two or more hours a day on line, time she's carved out of her reading time.

``It's very personal in a very impersonal sort of way,'' she says, laughing. ``You develop friendships, easy friendships; real friends take a lot of time and energy, but with e-friends, you can almost be more of yourself.''

There's a professor at Georgia State University she's never met personally, with whom she checks in at least once a week. Now they're planning a joint project.

Lea Columbus of Newport News went on line in February when she and her husband bought their first modem and subscribed to American On-Line and Infinet, which offers local access to the Internet.

``I'm still kind of in the amazement stage with it,'' she said. Her husband, on the other hand, logs onto the Internet and downloads files from East Germany. She, however, uses it more like a magazine, logging on and checking the news summary, going into the cooking section for recipes, using it as an extension of a bookstore.

Every Sunday, she logs onto a one-hour cooking discussion. The first week, she put her hands behind her back, afraid to say anything; now she gives out recipes.

``It sounds silly, but I've made friends on the computer. People who don't use it don't understand; how could you make friends on a computer?'' ILLUSTRATION: Color photos


LEFT: Sasha Tomey started her information highway travels nine years




Laura Griffin's dog, Star, is one of the few distractions that can

wrest her out of cyberspace.



For a copy of the BAWiT paper, FTP to and

download the BAWiT.CFP file

For more information on BAWiT, contact them electronically at


You can access Mindgames bulletin board at 483-4301

The America On-Line Cooking Forum meets Sunday evenings from 8-9

p.m. In the Cooking Forum, click on the keyword cooking.

The Ada Project, a WorldWideWeb (WWW) site designed to serve as a

clearinghouse for information and resources relating to women in

computing. Information includes conferences, projects, discussion

groups and organizations, fellowships and grants. .

by CNB