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Image courtesy Barry Lee Brisco, WomenAsia.com

By Rosemary Brisco

AC thanks Rosemary Brisco, CEO and Founder of the award winning WomenAsia.com for this excellent article.


     Women are being drawn to the Net in increasing numbers, in part because of the unique characteristics of online life; the power of e-mail, the ease of establishing relationships, and the lack of gender judgements in the anonymity of cyberspace.

     There is no question that women are a growing percentage of the online audience. When the first commercial Web browser was launched in late 1994, the vast majority of Net users were male--only five percent were females. By the end of 1998 in the U.S. - a mere four years later, women were 48 percent of the total online population, closely mirroring the male/female ratio in the general population.

     Asian women are riding in on this wave. Women are projected to account for 40% of online usage in the Asia/Pacific region in 2001.In China 15% of Net users are female, in Japan they account for 39% of new Net users, and female net users in Singapore are ubiquitous.

     The reasons for this transformation are many. In part it is due to the Net transitioning from requiring impossible-to-remember commands embedded in obscure interfaces, to the point-and-click ease of the Web. But this has drawn men and women alike; everyone appreciates ease-of-use.

Words are Power

     Despite the rise of the Web, e-mail is the most heavily used Internet application. By its very nature, e-mail is gender-neutral; your words, and the ideas they express, stand or fall on their own merits. You may be a short, slight female with a quiet voice who might have trouble making an impact in a room full of ego-driven males, but on an e-mail discussion list everyone is equal. This automatically places women on an equal level with the men no matter how many exclamation points they use! No one can interrupt you in mid-sentence, or worse, claim credit for ideas you propose; your thoughts and ideas are documented for all to see.

     Women are beginning to appreciate these advantages. In Japan, a Nikkei Market Access survey showed that the number of women who are planning to purchase a PC is growing, and that 81 percent of first-time women PC buyers cited use of e-mail as the main reason for their purchase.

Net Networking

     Gender stereotypes aside, women are natural networkers and the Net is a powerful facilitator. The number of women-only online support groups and e-mail lists for female entrepreneurs and business leaders has mushroomed.

     One of these, The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (in California), is in such demand that it restricts its membership to proven entrepreneurs. Their e-mail list is a bubbling brew of ideas, support, and mutual hand-holding that can help propel a fledgling startup to IPO status. Open to all, SFWOW (San Francisco Women on the Web, at www.sfwow.org) offers an e-mail discussion list, meetings and workshops, and a peer mentoring program for members to guide each other in enhancing their business and technology skills. Though it started in New York, Webgrrls International has expanded into Asia with sites targeted at Hong Kong, China and Japan. The online organization provides a forum for women to network, exchange job and business leads, form strategic alliances, mentor and teach, and learn the skills to help them succeed in an increasingly technical workplace (www.webgrrls.com).

     Web sites can be designed to build relationships, a powerful motivator for women. As Bernadette Tracey said in a recent Advertising Age piece, "Men focus on transactions while women thrive on making personal contacts." Sites can offer customized navigation, purchasing incentives, and discussion groups, all features that, according to a recent NetSmart survey, are desired by women more than men.

     Still, language remains a barrier. Most sites are only offered in English, and this tends to exclude all but the highly-educated Asian businesswomen.

The Nature of Work

     The Internet is just one part of a broad trend in industrialized countries that are moving to a post-industrial economy; the nature of work is changing from requiring physical labor to demanding the intellectual capability to process information, an arena where educated women suffer no comparative disadvantage to men.

     In The Sound of the Virtual Voice, Esther Dyson writes that "...the Internet is tailor-made to help women finally find their voices." She points out that for those women who feel stifled in corporate environments, the explosion of entrepreneurship online offers a wealth of opportunity to business-minded women that did not exist just a decade ago.

From Tiananmen Square to Harvard Square

     An example of how Asian women are transforming themselves through the Internet can be found in former Tiananmen Square student leader Ling Chai. Ten years ago she helped lead the student protests that led to the violent government reaction in Beijing. To escape from Chinese authorities, she spent five days nailed inside a shipping crate on its way to Hong Kong. She later arrived in America speaking no English and with few resources, but after earning degrees from Princeton and Harvard she has made the switch from political protestor to Net entrepreneur. She helped found www.Jenzabar.com, an intranet product targeted at educational institutions.

     Such opportunities are still some ways off for many Asian businesswomen. In Japan, women are CEOs of only about 5 percent of all Japanese companies, and many of the firms they head are smaller, family-type enterprises. According to a recent Japanese Labor Ministry survey, many companies do not offer women positions in management because of "lack of knowledge and judgement". This may gradually change as new government laws on equal hiring and promotion go into effect.

     But in other Asian countries, online entrepreneurs are striking out on their own. In Singapore, Cheryl Ng launched Style Surfers, an unconventional and refreshing online alternative to the women's fashion publishing industry. The site is a mix of fashion, Women's Issues, relationships, arts, travel, health and food articles, drawing on Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Caucasian writers. Ng says "We are starting to see the birth of a paperless society, and starting an online business is in line with this trend as well as being very economically viable for entrepreneurs like myself" (www.stylesurfers.com.sg).

     But women are still slotted into traditional roles online. On the SingNet portal page (Singapore's first Internet provider) the only mention of women is a section titled "Women Now", which consists of three links to major online stores, giving the impression that all women want to do on the Net is shop.

Women's Groups Gain Online Exposure

     With web publishing becoming increasingly accessible, women's organizations in areas as remote as Mongolia, Vietnam and Nepal can find a voice on the Net. The Mongolian Federation of Business and Professional Women, ASMITA Magazine in Nepal, and the Viet Nam Professional and Businesswomen's Network have all found a home under the auspices of this site, WomenAsia.com. Our database powers a growing community of female professionals and businesswomen and allows, for example, a Canadian company seeking a textile manufacturer in China can research potential partners in seconds.

     The Asian Women's Resource Exchange, based in Japan, is a Web-based women's information service and network. It is geared towards developing cooperative approaches and partnerships in increasing access and exploring applications of new information and communication technologies for women (www.jca.apc.org).

     Ultimately, the Internet is all about making connections, and with the e-mail/Web explosion those connections are multiplying at an exponential rate. One can readily imagine a future where it will no longer be remarkable to find Mongolian women online, or Chinese dissidents founding Internet startups; it will just be business as usual.

==========
Rosemary Brisco has a background of 16 years of sales and marketing experience in Canada, Singapore and the U.S., encompassing printing, publishing and the Internet, and is the Founder and CEO of WomenAsia.com, Asia's first business to business networking website connecting women in Asia and North America. The site serves a growing community of women who want to connect with one another for business and trade purposes.

Copyright WomenAsia.com, LLC

 

 

 


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