Presidential campaign illustrates my point
Recent-ish comments by Steve Pierson at the handmirror about the low level of female participation in the comments threads at the standard prompted me to reflect again on the issue of gendered space on the net. I was also interested to read an op-ed piece in Truthout about how having a female presidential candidate has increased female participation in the American democratic process.
As illustrated by the Truthout article, exemplars are really important to increasing the participation of individuals from groups who are under-represented, whatever the field in question. Ever noticed how you reach a point in your life where everyone you know is getting married? Or having kids? Or how children quite often end up in the same profession as one of their parents? Knowing someone who is doing something - like writing a blog for example, or publishing poetry, or film-making, or studying a tertiary degree, or going overseas (to name but a handful of examples from my own life) takes that something, whatever it is, from the realm of the imaginary into the realm of the possible. A prominent example of women on the vanguard of change - Marie Curie (scientist) was part of a highly educated, very bright family. Exemplars don't have to be the same as you - they just have to be someone you know and trust. But that said - in the arena of the internet, or where your main contact with an activity is through the mass media, being able to identify with someone doing the activity you want to participate in is very important. Mass media and even peer-to-peer communication demand that we identify with the "characters" that we come in contact with as we decode the text or film we're consuming. And it's much easier to do that with someone you can see is similar to you. Women in America are voting with their feet and getting into politics in greater numbers in the wake of Clinton's campaign.
And even though it shouldn't be necessary, exemplars can cause wider shifts in thinking about who does what. In the case of Clinton, seeing her taken seriously as a political contender (even despite the sexism of a good chunk of the political commentary surrounding her) suddenly means that the two main political parties in America can now sanction female candidates as likely to capture the vote in a way they were too conservative to do before. Male candidates were safe choices - now they're one of a growing plurality of choices.
Peer support is also hugely significant: New Zealand's first female registered doctor, Margaret Cruickshank was a twin who studied throughout her school life with her sister (a double masters graduate) and best friends with the first female medical graduate Emily Siedeberg. Suffragettes around the world worked together to get the vote. Second-wave feminism was based on shared experience and activity. The filmmakers (* * *) I most admire in New Zealand are women and I've honed most of my skills while working with another woman filmmaker.
These are disparate examples and anecdotal evidence (hey - this is a blog after all) but they do indicate that women doing something makes it possible for other women to imagine doing it. Getting back to my opening point, if the standard wants more women to comment then they should probably have more women writing. At the moment Steve is posting about 60% or more of all the pieces being run, and there are no writers who can be obviously identified as female. I assumed that all the posters were male, which is apparently not the case, but I bet I'm not the only one. Choice of topic might be an issue, and the stoushing style of interaction, coupled with some really brain-dead and/or sexist comments are not usually something that women indulge in when in more female dominated spaces. However - I'd be interested to see what would happen at the standard if there were more writers identifying themselves as women. Given all available evidence I'd be inclined to expect that the number of comments by women would increase and that this would quickly snowball, and that the change to commenting style would make it a space women would be more interested in occupying.
Whether I'm right or not remains to be seen....