Empowering Women Through the Internet; Dutch Women Unite
First Monday


Empowering Women Through the Internet; Dutch Women Unite

In The Netherlands, women are uniting to learn about computers and the Internet without the intervention of men or others who feel the need to show rather than to teach. Webgrrls-NL, which started in the spring of 1996, is one of the largest organisations of Internet users in Europe, and is developing into an influential power in both society and politics.

Webgrrls-NL is seen as a practical organisation that does not get stuck in theory but works pragmatically. It organises training days and theme discussions, hosts a variety of mailing lists, supports new and established entrepreneurs, and provides a safe environment for women to experiment with a medium that is relatively strange to some of them.

At present, activities of Webgrrls-NL include support for 10 mailing lists, two training days per year, three In Real Life (IRL) meetings per year for entrepreneurs, annual informal New Year gatherings throughout the country, and ad hoc IRL meetings when an occasion arises.


Contents

History & Background
The Beginning
Growth and Revolution
On Track
Explosive Growth
Media Exposure
IRL Activities
Future
Conclusions & Lessons We've Learned

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History & Background

In the dawning days of the Internet, few women were involved in it. Those who were usually weren't welcomed as equal counterparts by the male-oriented online community. Especially in newsgroups women were sometimes treated as an inferior species. As soon as participating males discovered that a person asking a question was a woman, it was not at all uncommon for her to be told that technology was too difficult for her, and that she should concentrate on other activities such as cooking and sewing. Others were more plain about their interests and approached woman directly, by e-mail or on Usenet, with the intention of engaging in a sweaty bodily oriented activity.

This treatment put off many women. Several left the Web for good. Others objected to being treated in this way. They refused to accept that the Web was male-only territory. Corrine Petrus was one of them.

In the spring of 1995, Aliza Sherman founded Webgrrls International, based in the U.S. Their mission:

Webgrrls International provides a forum for women in or interested in new media and technology to network, exchange job and business leads, form strategic alliances, mentor and teach, intern and learn the skills to help women succeed in an increasingly technical workplace and world.

This appealed to Corrine, and in the spring of 1996, she decided to join the Webgrrls by forming her own local group. Dutch Webgrrls were born.

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The Beginning

The first sponsor was found in the form of an Internet Service Provdier that provided a mailing list and hosted a Web site. Slowly, women started to find their way to the Webgrrls-NL. Communication through the mailing list was the main activity at that point. Those who were involved in the group at this point were mainly active working women who already knew each other in real life, from the small IT community or the even smaller world of Internet developers.

Being such an anomaly in the online world, the group picked up a lot of publicity. Newspapers, radio, and television all jumped on the subject of Webgrrls and Corrine did a perfect job in exposing the group as a humour-filled, non-agressive (but also not-taking-b.s.) group. This exposure directly led to a jump in subscribers to the mailing list. Women were overjoyed to find out there were more of their species on the Web and loved the idea of a group with a less vulgar level of conversation.

Not that the group were being overly polite or even politically correct all the time. They just did not shout "RTFM!" [1] at each other, followed by a self-pleased look of "Look what I dared to say". This was a huge improvement over the former situation. It created an environment in which system administrators felt comfortable enough to confess they didn't get the finetuning of WordPerfect and ask for help, Web designers shared their problems on networking their computers, and programmers discussed their work problems without being targeted as incompetent whiners unfit for their job.

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Growth and Revolution

With the growing number of Webgrrls, the need for a structured organization arose. An important stimulant was that in order to be eligible for funding, a formalized multiple leadership was required. Hence Corrine and a few others who joined her in the very beginning founded the Dutch Webgrrls Foundation.

The legal structure of a foundation provides that the members of the board decide all matters, and the members of the foundation have no say. This can be very practical in a virtual group, where offical annual gatherings and legally correct member votings are hard to realize. But it turned out the group suffered from teething problems.

The hard-working board members neglected to clearly communicate their plans for the future and their thoughts about the expanding group. When the board decided that every Webgrrl had to pay 25 guilders (some 13 U.S. dollars) per year to participate or be kicked out, all hell broke loose.

As we all know, nobody owns the Internet. Therefore the idea of asking money for services didn't go unchallenged, especially in those pre-e-commerce times. Many members of Webgrrls thought of the Internet as a free medium, in the sense that anyone can get a connection. Since virtually all mailing lists are free, the idea that the participants of the Dutch Webgrrls mailing list would have to pay for the list met with enormous resistance that resulted in an outright revolt.

Luckily the rebels were outnumbered by the people who really hated the idea of this fine group going down. A new model of management was invented on the spot and eventually, the foundation was replaced by a "vereniging", which is the Dutch equivalent of an association. The association and its new board were installed in the winter of 1997-1998. At the first official general assembly in the spring of 1998, it was decided that access to the mailing list would remain free of charge.

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On Track

With the revolution over, the Webgrrls settled down. Discussions on the list returned to problems and issues related to computers and the Internet in the broadest sense. The membership count, which had dropped below 600, started to rise again. Thanks to more opportunities to gain access to the Internet and the mailing list, there were a lot more women on the list with no computer or Internet experience.

Women were again very enthousiastic about the list. They had created a place where newbies and oldies alike could ask questions without being afraid of the dreaded RTFM answer. Nobody was ever told that she was stupid for not understanding something and everybody did her best to answer questions in an understandable and constructive way.

The result was that women who arrived with virtually no knowledge whatsoever about computers were three months later answering the questions of newcomers. This of course was an enormous boost to their confidence. Women started to realise that, contrary to what they had always been lead to believe, they were capable of understanding, doing, and enjoying technical "things". Those "things" range from installing and configuring software, to physically opening up a computer and inserting hardware, to designing Web sites, and much more.

The members of the Webgrrls-NL board took an avid part in the daily hassle of the group. They busily followed and participated in the discussions on the list, and when there was an elaborate and lively discussion about women who had started or wanted to start their own business, an IRL (In Real Life) meeting was organised.

The meeting took place in the summer of 1998 and attracted a dozen women, most of them in the process of starting up a business. At the meeting, it was decided to start a SIG (Special Interest Group), and the next day a new mailing list was established. The SIG was named the KO-grrls. "KO" is short for "Kleine Ondernemers" which means entrepreneurs of small businesses.

This new list clearly filled a need; in a few months, the original 12 subscribers to the mailing list had grown tenfold. The list is now a platform where women can ask all sorts of questions concerning entrepreneurship. From the contacts on the list, new work relationships have sprouted, and a couple of more experienced entrepreneurs are mentoring start-up businesses in a one-on-one relationship. This helps the young entrepreneurs to avoid the pitfalls they were likely to fall into without the aid of their mentor.

September 1998 brought a new hot topic to the list: stress, burn-out, and RSI (repetitive stress injuries). Two months later, 45 webgrrls attended a IRL meeting about these topics. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds enlightened the highly interested group. At the meeting a company demonstrated ergonomic chairs and desks, and a female teacher did a Tai Chi workshop, since there had been many tales about the healthy effects of the Chinese workout on stressed out people on the list. The meeting was a big success and the results lasted for many months.

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Explosive Growth

Webgrrls-NL had by September 1998 grown to about 1,000 members and the media were rediscovering the group. With greater frequency, the Webgrrls were mentioned in articles on and off-line. This publicity lead to a dramatic growth rate. By the end of March 1999, there were 1,400 Dutch Webgrrls and six months later the 2,000th computer-interested woman came aboard. Membership since then seems to average almost 150 new members per month.

The members of this community decided that the board should direct the association towards a future that will enable all Dutch women to acquire hands-on knowledge of the internet and new media. This approach would prevent women from falling behind with new technologies while offering an ideal opportunity for women with limited possibilities to gain independence. The group would aim to help especially those who can hardly leave home, because of small children or handicaps, to start, for example, a blooming business on the Web. Online contacts occasionally have created new companies among members of Webgrrls.

With so many women joining the group, new ideas and initiatives sprout on an almost daily basis. more and more women get together "IRL" and become friends. This strengthens the "us-feeling" within Webgrrls, and as a result, more women want to actively participate in the organisation of events organised in the name of, and for, Dutch Webgrrls.

Those activities in turn help to draw new members, and the circle is complete: the more women join the Webgrrls, the more activities are organised and the more women join the Webgrrls. For 2000, Webgrrls set some lofty goals. Webgrrls started the new year with 2,400 members (as of New Year's Day 2000); the intention is to have 5,000 members by the end of the year.

As Webgrrls grows, more and more women are reached. As always, hearing about an initiative from a friend or a neighbour works a lot better than all other forms of advertising. The women's communities in The Netherlands often work for Webgrrls: a very large percentage of the members has found the group through a friend's appreciation.

One of the consequences of the increased number of Webgrrls was that the mailing list was generating huge quantities of e-mail. Many of the messages were from newbies asking questions that had been asked and answered time and again. Several oldies, many of them working in the ICT industry, had grown out of this stage and they asked for a list of their own where they could discuss more advanced issues concerning computers and Internet.

The board was reluctant to agree to this request, because many members were afraid all the oldies would unsubscribe from the main list, leaving no one to answer questions, thereby leaving newbies in the dark and losing them as well. After some debate and a poll, however, it was decided to experiment and the so-called IT-list was born.

As it turns out, this solution caters for everyone. There are still a fair number of oldies on the main list who are willing to answer newbie questions, but now there's also a place for women who work with computers on a more advanced level to discuss their problems, without having to skip through dozens of messages every day.

Learning from this experiment, Webgrrls is now much less reluctant to start new SIGs. There are now 10 mailing lists and more are expected to start with the increase in the number of Webgrrls.

The steady membership growth of the Webgrrls and its activities created a problem for the board. The board had so far organised and done everything on their own with the incidental help of a small number of others. Given that all of the board members work full-time outside of Webgrrls, the amount of work was beginning to overwhelm them and almost anyone else involved in the group.

We realised we were on the wrong track; a board is supposed to manage, not organise and execute as well. In October 1999, the board decided to radically change things. We wrote a document, describing all the different tasks at hand and are now in the process of putting together teams of Webgrrls. Each team will have its own tasks and resposibilities. The coordinator of each team keeps in touch with a member of the board. This way, the members of the board will be able to properly keep things going without having to worry about all the little details.

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Media Exposure

Advertising by word-of-mouth works best among women, who feel more secure with the idea of joining a group that somebody they know has tested and recommends. But it's not always easy to explain everything the Webgrrls do and have to offer thanks in part to the proliferation of mailing lists and other activities. So, we have recently had an attractive pamphlet made that members can give to potential Webgrrls.

This pamphlet is now available at computer stores where Webgrrls work and from the Association of Dutch Internet Service Providers. And of course, many Webgrrls carry these pamphlets with them to give to interested women in case the subject is broached.

However, in order to be able to fullfill the mission the members wish to accomplish - to reach every woman in the Netherlands - Webgrrls-NL will need a lot more media attention. So far, virtually all media exposure has been initiated by the media. Only on very few occasions have we send out press releases. This is mostly due to lack of time but it's going to change in the near future.

We are currently putting together a group that will write a public relations plan and will be responsible for writing and sending press releases on a regular basis. The few press releases that have been send have earned very good coverage; women and the Internet are obviously an interesting subject and journalists and editors are willing to give due attention. So it's up to us to make the most of this attention.

Despite the lack of continuous media attention, the group has made good contacts in government circles and in the Internet society in The Netherlands. The influence on decision makers is growing almost as fast as the number of Webgrrls.

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IRL Activities

Training days

Twice a year Webgrrls holds training days, offering a diversity of Internet-related workshops. These workshops include:

  • An introduction to the Internet. This workshop aims to give women a hands-on introduction to e-mail and Web surfing;
  • HTML for beginners;
  • HTML for the more advanced users;
  • CSS;
  • JavaScript;
  • Perl/CGI;
  • Audio for the Web;
  • Graphics for the Web; and,
  • Macromedia Flash.

Future training days may include:

  • Linux;
  • using Macromedia Dreamweaver;
  • writing content for the Web;
  • using Microsoft Frontpage; and,
  • advanced searching on the Web.

Workshops are given by women (and sometimes men) who are professionals on the topic they teach. They aim to teach amateurs how to build Web sites, just for the fun of it. However, for several participants it has been the start of a professional life as a Web designer.

KO-grrls

The KO-grrls have developed into a group of women that appreciate their fellow entrepreneurs. Since many of them work alone from their own homes, the KO-grrls are their colleagues. They share with them all the things other people share with their co-workers. They support each other through bad times and good times and they have three IRL meetings per year. Those meetings are organised by members of the group and usually attract between 20 and 25 attendees. There is usually a theme to the meetings. So far, no experts from outside the group have appeared (one male didn't show). The meetings evolve around the exchange of experiences concerning various aspects of entrepreneurship and that's more than enough to fill such meetings.

New Year gatherings

The beginning of a new year brings a special event for the Webgrrls. Throughout the country, informal gatherings are organised in pubs, cafés, and restaurants. Webgrrls gather to finally meet virtual friends IRL, or renew established friendships. All meetings are organised ad hoc by women who just like the idea of such an informal meeting. Some meetings constitute of just having a drink together in a pub, and some involve home-made dinners for 35 people.

Importance of IRL activities for a virtual community

All IRL meetings have proven to be crucially important. It's an opportunity for women to meet other women they feel they have come to know but have never actually met before. Most people are curious about "the person behind the e-mail address", and IRL meetings are a way to find out about them. Though the feeling of having a blind date makes people gigglish at first, many friendships have grown deeper through the RL contact. This creates very warm feelings towards Webgrrls, since that's the organisation that brought everyone together. IRL meetings make women feel in touch with the Webgrrls and they are more inclined to become actively involved.

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Future

Future activities will include an monthly introduction course for computer illiterates and later a special course for the alphabetically challenged, made with Flash, RealAudio, and other highly interactive tools. Many Moroccan and Turkish immigrants come from rural areas where literacy of women is considered a luxury. Webgrrls-NL plans to develop a computer-based training program to teach them to read and write, and some computer literacy on the way.

Unfortunately a lot of time is needed for fund raising. The board wishes to keep entrance and membership fees as low as possible and thus has not much financial room. Applying for government, NGO, and European funding requires lots of time to handle all of the paperwork.

The explosive growth has forced the board to restrict themselves to management as opposed to participative leadership. Though the latter is still preferred by several of the seven board members, it has become necessary to delegate tasks. Members are generally very active, since everyone really believes in the potential of the group and are very willing to offer their time.

Development will likely proceed towards an official headquarter, "manned" permanently by someone who performs the administrative chores. This leaves the board with much needed time for management and planning.

There also may be a split from Webgrrls International. The Dutch group has merely borrowed the name from the New York group; in a densely organized country like the Netherlands, it is highly likely that a similar organization would have developed in the same period without Aliza Sherman's idea. More importantly, the Dutch group has always run without any support (or much contact) from the U.S. Now that Webgrrls International is becoming more commercial, there has been an appeal to raise membership payments. The need to raise extr) money in order to send it off to the U.S. would most certainly destroy the Dutch group. Therefore, the board has been and still is looking for alternatives. Luckily, it has not been necessary to hurry.

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Conclusions & Lessons We've Learned

We have come a long way and taken a couple of tumbles in the process. But now we have a succesful organisation that has grown into the largest association of Internet users in the Netherlands. Conclusions we can draw and lessons we have learned are:

  1. In an Internet-based organisation, it's a good idea to keep communication with all those involved going at a steady rate. We lost a lot of time and goodwill inside and outside the group in part to an initial lack of correspondence between the initial board and the rest of the membership. This could probably have been prevented.

  2. With the growth of the number of Webgrrls, new SIGs are inevitable. We feared losing membership in the main mailing list, but it turned out we were losing members without the SIGs. More members mean a greater diversity of interests and therefore, SIGs are vital.

  3. A board is supposed to manage an association, not organise and execute everything themselves. Workgroups have to be formed to organise and do things, while the board keeps an eye on things. Managing a large organisation takes a lot of time; execution of tasks should therefore be delegated to other active members and not board members. Otherwise, board members will be swamped with work and it won't be long before they go under, leaving the organisation in disarray.

  4. IRL meetings are important to get people involved in the organisation. And to keep them involved, it's important to let them know from time to time that their efforts are noticed and appreciated. We have done this by sending all volunteers a New Year's card together with a book token.

  5. Draw up contracts with sponsors. We lost a sponsor quite unexspectedly, because the company was taken over by another. Since we had no formal contract with the sponsor, the sponsorship just ended there. As a consequence, we have been unable to organise large-scale training days.End of Article

About the Authors

Karen Drost and Miriam Jorna are both Dutch women. Together, they currently chair the board of Webgrrls-NL. They are both Internetnerds in the truest sense of the word. Miriam has been involved with Webgrrls-NL since the very beginning in 1996. She has been co-chair of the board of the association since its creation. Besides being a Webgrrl, she has her own company, Hightension.net, which assists companies in their Internet adventures in the broadest sense.
E-mail: mjorna@hoogspanning.net

Karen has been part of Webgrrls-NL since the summer of 1997, has been a board member since November 1998, and co-chair since March 2000. She too has her own company, FARO Webdesign, which specialises in designing Web sites and advising companies in how to make the most of the Internet.
E-mail: karen@faro.nl

Note

1. "RTFM!", literally "Read the f...ing manual!", nowadays stands for all non-helping but stigmatizing comments on computer-related questions.


Editorial history

Paper received 8 September 2000; accepted 18 September 2000.

This article originally was written in January 2000, revised in June 2000, and presented at INET2000, Yokohama, Japan on 19 July 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Empowering Women Through the Internet; Dutch Women Unite by Karen Drost and Miriam Jorna
First Monday, volume 5, number 10 (October 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_10/drost/index.html





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