Monday, 8 October 2007

Women, Buddhism and the Internet

by Tom Armstrong

Though the Internet offers us an arena of egalitarian play, and Buddhism is a fount of compassion -- a quality closely associated with women -- Western Buddhism is dominated by the galumphing presence of men, as much in the virtual world as in flesh-bone-bricks-and-morter sanghas. Why is this? And what is a proper vision of Buddhism Online for the future? and how do we get there? And if we can drag Online Buddhism to a more genteel, creamy, cosmopolitan [i.e., woman friendly] space, might the physical world of middle-aged white-guy Buddhism, like Mary’s lamb, follow close behind … toward it becoming more diverse and welcoming?

Out in our walk-about lives, we live through a mostly lovely, but certainly slow, journey toward equality between men and women. Ever more women enter occupations previously monopolized by men [and vice versa]. Ever more, gender is less of a bar, toward a point of being unrecognized, except where pairing off is concerned. And, women are shattering the glass barriers: taking control of big corporations and, probably, in January 2009, securing the reins of a big North American country.

Most Buddhists are perhaps like me, hopeful that one day our goals for what progress is shifts -- away from seeing being On Top of the Mountain, ordering around others and, usually, living in the lap of luxury as being the, ah, apex of having had a meaningful life. But, at least for now, access is being made more available to a greater array of people and that is all to the good. People aren’t as hemmed in, disallowed by societal pressure to do what they are best at or desire most to do with their lives.

Yet, on the Internet the differences in the behaviors and values of men vis-à-vis women is stark. Instead of the physical world’s vector of proof coming more and more into focus that men’s and women’s brains are very similar, the Internet -- a field for masked play -- is very much Mars and Venus [or, Google and Yahoo?], the genders being planets apart in how they behave and what they choose to do. And most curious of all, instead of everyone being emboldened by semi-anonymity to engage in all manner of daring-do -- crossing boundaries, venturing into unknown territories -- most people are shy and blinkered by their meatspace fear of being potentially naked in public.

I found this pithy sentiment of gender differences, online, in a Powerpoint presentation written by ReadySetPresent. It’s imperfect, sure, but fair and apt given a limitation of a couple dozen words per gender:
"Men are externally focused and often view situations as issues to be resolved. They talk to inform others."

"Women are internally focused and often talk as a way to connect and relate to others."
A recent New York Times article tells us “We know that women outnumber men online,” but both the oceanic buddoblogosphere [i.e., Buddhist blogging outside walled social communities] and Buddhist webspaces, generally, are in overwhelming proportion managed, written and visited by males.

This is somewhat explained by the general differences between what men and women do online. According to a December 2005 Pew report, “How Women and Men Use the Internet,” with the subheading, “Women are catching up to men in most measures of online life. Men like the internet for the experiences it offers, while women like it for the human connections it promotes.”

Women are keen on email. “Women send and receive email more than men. Some 94% of online women and 88% of online men use email,” says the report. “Women say email improves relationship with friends, family, and colleagues more than men do, and that it improves the work climate as well.”

One section of the report is titled “Using the internet to get information: Men pursue and consume information online more aggressively than women.” The report tells us, “Although men and women say equally that they find the information online that they are looking for, men are a lot more confident in themselves as searchers, and they are less overwhelmed by the glut of information that’s out there.” But I think this reading of the data may be a little suspect. If woman are as successful at finding what they’re looking for, then male gung-ho confidence may be a chimera or women may be overly self-critical.

We are also told that “men pursue a [wider spectrum of] activities with greater enthusiasm [than women]” and that “women are more likely to use the internet … to get support for health or personal problems, and get religious information.”

To sum up, a concluding paragraph from the report:

Men and women share an appreciation of what the internet does for their lives, particularly in making their lives more efficient and expanding their world of information. Men seem to value these strengths most in the context of the activities of their lives, from jobs to pastimes, while women seem to value them most in the context of the relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and communities.
So, the report tells us that woman use the internet to get religious information, are highly communicative [love email] and interested in relationships of all sorts. Doesn’t that sound like it should be a hotbed of bloggers? But in the worldwide English-speaking Buddhist community, it just isn’t. It's male aggression and gung-ho get-it-done determination that makes The Blogger.

Not only do men outnumber women in the buddhoblogosphere by a ratio of, perhaps, 4 to 1, there is nothing to suggest the ratio is improving. Many of the most proficient female Buddhist bloggers have left us, while not nearly the same proportion of men have. Gone from us are these great women buddhobloggers: F. Kwan [Foot before foot: a photoblog]; Kimberly Gold [this zen life]; Zenchick [Zenchick: Musings from the Lotus Position]; Andi Young/Soen Joon Sunim [Ditch the Raft & One robe one bowl] and Audrey [Taming the Heart]. Also, chalip of Zen Under the Skin; Chodpa of Luminous Emptiness; and Dharmasattva of Dharmasattva's Meditations now post very infrequently. Plus, the great An Xiao recently put her haiblog, That Was Zen, This is Tao on hiatus. Some vital niches in the buddhoblogosphere are now empty and may be lost!

So, What’s an online Buddhist to do? In one sense, it seems that the problem is clearly THE WOMEN’S FAULT!!! [And I say that not just because only men post to this group blog and, perhaps, only men are reading this.] While we pretend that any group of people is wholly interlinked, truly, one’s online presence has a ambience you create for yourself. If you want to be loved and popular, you have enormous control in effecting that by networking with others you like, promoting yourself, and being charming and interested in others. If you’re a curmudgeon [like myself], or are unwilling to do the networking to create a known online presence, hopefully you will be satisfied writing your posts for a more-meager audience.

Similarly, some snarling complaints that meatspace sanghas are overrun my old white men are specious. Isn’t it really the case that at the workplace or in a community of any kind there are sub-groupings of associations that are near always the most important to us? At least until we are a lot wiser and more accepting, it is always a small number of people that are let into our lives and become especially important to us. So, if you're prejudice against OWMs, not to worry: There are sure to be others you can bond with in a rump sangha of some sort.

Perhaps every Buddhist community online is a loose and transient confederation. The most stunning thing about it is that there is little governance and it's easy, with no permission needed, to alter one's presence there to something that might be more satisfactory. Ditch the old blog and get a new one. Create a wholly new screen presence.

It is probably the case that if more women are to become a part of Buddhism Online, we will need to solicit them, and only then, if they come on board with glee and enthusiasm, will the virtual world become more genteel, creamier and have a more cosmopolitan air about it:


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  1. Nice article Tom.

    Personally, I'm inclined to think that since women are entirely free to express themselves by blog if they want to (and the fact that they don't as much as men is probably explained by different psychological tendencies), then there is no problem. They are expressing their freedom by doing the things they choose to do rather than blogging. And that's fine.

    There are exceptions of course such as Gwen Bell.

  2. I write for a women's focused website on the subject of Buddhism.

    I agree that there needs to be more for/about/by women Buddhist. I have found in my interact with women on the internet that a lot of them are nervous about being ridiculed by non-Buddhist for their religious choices.

  3. Justin,

    Yes. I hear you. But we all lose something if a part of the chorus is missing. If men are too exclusively communicating amongst themselves, or if women are doing so just amongst themselves, we all lose transformative insight.

    It's a difficult thing to "cure" in a medium that is wholly open.

  4. Jeanette,

    What a great pleasure to learn of you and your webspace! I will be very interested to know of all insights you might have that might get more women to blog openly [or, even, openly yet anonymously] in the buddhoblogosphere. Perhaps if the encumberances/obstacles that woman have that deter jumping into the Buddhist Online Ocean were better understood, by men and by women, it would help to overcome them.

    -- Tom