Research. Gender, design and Internet commerce

Internet Research

ISSN: 1066-2243

Article publication date: 1 March 2000


(2000), "Research. Gender, design and Internet commerce", Internet Research, Vol. 10 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Research. Gender, design and Internet commerce


Gender, design and Internet commerce

Researchers: Supriya Singh and Annette Ryan, Centre for International Research in Communication and Information Technologies (CIRCIT) at RMIT University. E-mail:;WWW:

Isobel, 36, sounds like an e-commerce commercial when she describes how she and her husband bought a second-hand car online. "We went through The Age and we just did a search for the car we wanted and the price range we wanted and it came with about 20 alternatives. It was a private sale. We phoned and asked the fellow all about it and got someone in Melbourne to have a look at it for us". They went to Melbourne from their farm and purchased it overnight. "So it was as quick as that", she says. Isobel is not unusual for a farmer. However, for Australia as a whole, it is the men who are still more likely to be on the Internet at home than women. The gap is fast being bridged as the Internet becomes domesticated. There remain important differences, however, in the ways women and men use the Internet.

This project examines the relationship between the use of the Internet at home, the design of electronic commerce, and its impact on the management of money in Australian households. In this project we define the Internet to include e-mail, the World Wide Web, mailing lists and newsgroups. We define electronic commerce as purchase or service related activities via the Internet, supported by telephone, kiosks, and/or the Internet.

We seek to understand:

  • the differences between men and women's use of the Internet at home;

  • the relationship between the gender differences in the use of the Internet at home, the design of the PC, and electronic commerce; and

  • the electronic management of money and its effect on power in marriage.

We will describe the implications of this pattern of Internet use for the development of electronic commerce. Understanding the gendered use of the Internet at home will also provide new insights and contribute to more informed policy making in relation to electronic commerce.

Gender, communication and technology in the home

In this study, we referred to three bodies of literature relating to gender and technology, the domestication of technologies and design and the sociological study of money.

Gender and technology

Behind the questions about the gendered use of the Internet at home is the broader question that Wajcman (1991, p. 13) posed about gender and technology. Is the difference in men and women's use of technology connected to technology being in some sense "inherently patriarchal"? The use of the Internet also relates to the debate about the different cognitive styles of men and women, with men wanting the "hard mastery" over technology, whereas women prefer the "soft mastery" which allows them to accommodate to the world (Turkle, 1984). This is a near fit with Pirsig's (1974) earlier dichotomies of romantic and classical dimensions of knowing.

There is also evidence of differences in the way men and women communicate. Tannen (1990) submits that many men engage the world as individuals in a hierarchical social order. They are either one-up or one-down. The key struggle is to preserve independence. Many women approach the world as a network of connections, where the key aim is to achieve intimacy. Tannen sees these differences as a continuum with more men ranged on the status end and women's concentration being on connection.

When we place our findings of gender differences in the use of the Internet at home, we have an interesting situation. Women are said to prefer soft mastery, connection, the romantic way of knowing - yet it is women who use the Internet as a tool. It is the men who want to play and explore the possibilities of use.

The theme of women not being comfortable with technology comes up often in the interviews. Typically, technology has been associated with masculinity. Our interviews show that when women become comfortable with the technology, the focus shifts from the technology to the activity. Domestic technologies that are primarily related to the conduct of household work - the washing machine, the refrigerator, the microwave, the stove, the oven - are not seen as technologies. Information communication technologies such as the telephone, the radio and the television - technologies used comfortably by women are also no longer seen as technologies. They are now associated with activities such as telephoning, hearing the radio and seeing television.

Domestication and design

We also found it relevant to place our study within the wider debate on design and the domestication of technologies. As Silverstone and Haddon (1996) have argued, domestication is always a multi-layered process linking design and use. Design of the Internet and Internet commerce needs to respond to gender differences in Internet use at home. Successful design geared to women would ensure there was less emphasis on the Internet and more on the activities it makes possible. It would be presented as a personal means of communication.

In order to examine aspects of design from the users' and providers' perspectives, we use the diffusion of innovation framework presented by Rogers (1995, p. 16): Innovations that are perceived by individuals as having greater relative advantage, compatibility, trialability, observability, and less complexity will be adopted more rapidly than other innovations.

The emphasis is on individuals' perceptions of innovations within their social and cultural context, rather than the innate characteristics of innovations.

The sociological study of money

In order to analyse the electronic management of money and its effect on power relationships in the home, we approached money as a sociological phenomenon. Viviana Zelizer, a sociologist at Princeton University, has been central in changing the sociological discourse on money. Her historical work on insurance and domestic money led her to argue that money not only transforms social patterns and cultural values, but is itself shaped by cultural and structural factors. There are different kinds of money. Market money is different from money in the home. These different kinds of monies are earmarked and often separated, for one kind of money cannot always be substituted for another. Money for grocery shopping is not the same as money for investment. Money earned is not the same as money inherited.

Zelizer's main thrust has been to show that money does not always belong to the market. Building on Zelizer's frameworks, Singh's (1997) work on money in marriage and banking shows that money in the market is also socially and culturally shaped. Unlike the ideal type of market money that underlies economic policy and law, banking money is personal, private, and joint. Hence the assumption that there is only one kind of money in the market also has to be questioned.

We also refer to recent sociological work on the management of money in the household. Pahl's (1999) qualitative and quantitative research of family finances in households shows there are clear patterns of exclusion from the electronic economy, both between and within households. One of the most significant variables was education. Pahl also finds that men dominate the use of new technologies at home. They also make more use of new forms of money than women do. She finds this dominance is changing the gender balance of financial power within families.

Studying gender and electronic commerce

The emphasis in this study is to understand the meanings and connections of the Internet and electronic commerce from the woman's perspective. The questions focus on women and the way they communicate with different people for various activities. Within this user and activity perspective, the questions explore the way women mix and match the Internet and other communication technologies and services to seek information, communicate, work, play, shop, or pay for goods and services. The interviews explore the possible relationship between the meaning, attitudes and the use of different forms of money.

As this study aims to feed into policy, we also focus on women's use of government electronic services. A particular emphasis is on the design characteristics of the PC, Internet and electronic services.

Our study is based on open-ended interviews with 30 middle-income women who have Internet at home. At least half the women are from households where goods and services have been ordered and purchased over the Internet, so that we can better understand the use of electronic commerce. Most of the women are married. The women come from a range of age groupings, educational qualifications, occupational status and from urban and rural areas across Australia.

The women are from our professional and personal networks, advertising on e-mail lists, women's, farmers' and community organisations. It is a snowball sample but with multiple points of access to ensure a wide range.

This is a grounded study, in that the emphasis is on the emergence of theory from the data. The data are being analysed using NUD*IST (non-numerical unstructured data indexing searching and theorising), a computer program for the analysis of qualitative data (for a detailed examination of NUD*IST and the research process, see Singh, 1996). The emerging theory will be continually tested against the data to see if it fits, and whether it explains the data that do not fit.

This study does not aim to be generalisable across Australia. It aims to understand rather than quantify and predict the different factors that influence women's use or non-use of the Internet and electronic commerce. We place this qualitative study within the random, representative picture of Internet use using data from surveys conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

We recognise we are investigating women's perception of gender differences (if any) in Internet use and electronic commerce. The study is further qualified as the women studied are mainly from middle income households and of Anglo-Celtic background. Our sample thus helps us understand the majority group, but at the same time, we are not able to speak of cross-cultural differences in Internet use in Australia.

Preliminary findings

We are still analysing our data. We have still to complete our analysis of the farm divide and the electronic management of money. Our preliminary analysis shows complex gender differences which go beyond differences in access, frequency, and type of use.

We found that:

  • Women use the Internet instrumentally as a tool for activities which range from work, study, personal communication, seeking information, helping their children do homework to buying and selling goods and services. They think that for men, the Internet is associated with play, gadgetry, machinery, and power.

  • Women's emphasis is on the activity rather than the technology. The most domesticated technologies such as the telephone are not perceived as technologies.

  • Women prefer personal and contextualised channels of communication where possible and convenient.

  • Face-to-face communication and telephoning remain important. E-mail can also be seen as personal and is substituting for letter writing to a greater extent.

  • Use of the new technologies is leading to a change in the perception of activities such as communicating with family, writing, listening, managing money and payments, shopping for some goods and services.

  • There was a farm/non-farm divide in the use of the PC and the Internet. Women farmers we interviewed say they use the PC, the Internet and Internet commerce more than their husbands. This differs from the general picture in Australia where men are more likely to use the Internet at home than women.

The implications for designers and policy makers are to:

  • focus on the activity and make the technology as invisible and easy to use as possible;

  • present online technologies as personal ways of connecting;

  • have them fit with accepted ways of conducting activities;

  • focus on simplifying design rather than just increasing skills; and

  • be alert to changes in the nature of activities e.g. the Xerox case where it was copying that changed.

Funding and steps ahead

This project is funded by the Australian Research Council and the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. The final report of the project is due in November 1999.

We hope to work with designers and policy makers to translate these findings to contribute to effective design and policy.


Pahl, J. (1999), Invisible Money: Family Finances in the Electronic Economy, Policy Press, Bristol.

Pirsig, R.M. (1974), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, The Bodley Head, London, UK.

Rogers, E.M. (1995), Diffusion of Innovations, 4th ed., The Free Press, New York, NY.

Silverstone, R. and Haddon, L. (1996), "Design and domestication of information and communication technologies: technical change and everyday life", in Mansell, R. and Silverston, R. (Eds), Communication by Design: The Politics of Information and Communication Technologies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 44-74.

Singh, S. (1996), "Money, marriage and the computer", Marriage and Family Review, Vol. 24 Nos 3/4, pp. 369-98.

Singh, S. (1997), Marriage Money: The Social Shaping of Money in Marriage and Banking, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.

Tannen, D. (1990), You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Random House Australia, Milsons Point.

Turkle, S. (1984), The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

Wajcman, J. (1991), Feminism Confronts Technology, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney.

Zelizer, V. (1994), The Social Meaning of Money Basic Books, New York, NY.