Empowering Women Through the Internet: Dutch Women Unite

Karen DROST <karen@faro.nl>
FARO Webdesign

Miriam JORNA <mjorna@hoogspanning.net>
Hightension.net Internet Solutions


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 instead of teach. The group has developed into an influential power in both society and politics.

In the Dutch non-stimulating environment for technical females, the women are empowered by the experience of learning to solve their own problems and after that to helping others solve theirs. The self-help experience tends to have an amazing effect on the self-image and confidence of the women involved. The group is seen as a practical organization that does not get stuck in theory but works pragmatically.

Examples of their work include the organization of training days and theme discussions, the hosting of a variety of mailing lists, support for starting and established entrepreneurs, and the provision of a safe environment for women to experiment with a medium that is relatively strange to them, as the contact between women and technology in the Netherlands has only been sparsely encouraged in the past two decades.

The organization was founded in spring 1996 and has several thousands of members today. The group, being the largest organization of Internet users in Europe, is developing as a political force and recognized as such.

At present, activities include:



In the dawning days of the Internet, few women were involved in it. And 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 the participating males discovered that a person asking a question was female, it was not at all uncommon for her to be made to understand that technology was too difficult for women, and that she should concentrate on other activities, such as cooking and sewing. Others were more plain about their interests and approached the woman directly, by e-mail or on usenet, with the intention of engaging in a sweaty, bodily oriented activity.

This 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 United States. 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.

The beginning

The first sponsor was an Internet service provider (ISP) that provided a mailing list and hosted a Web site. Slowly, women started to find their way to the Webgrrls. Communication through the mailing list was the main activity at that point. The main startup group consisted of active working women who already knew each other in real life from the small information technology (IT) community or the even smaller world of Internet developers.

Being such an anomaly in the online world, the group had a lot of publicity. Newspapers, radio, and TV all jumped on the subject and Corrine did a perfect job in portraying the group as a humor-filled, non-aggressive but also not-taking-b.s. group. This caused a jump in subscription figures. Other 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!" (*) at each other, followed by a self-pleased look of "Look what I dared to say." This was a huge improvement from 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 about networking their computers, and programmers discussed their work problems without being targeted as incompetent whiners unfit for their job.

(* "RTFM!", literally "Read the f...ing manual!", nowadays stands for all non-helpful and stigmatizing comments on computer-related questions.)

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 official annual gatherings and legally correct member votings are hard to realize. But it turned out the group suffered from teething problems. The hardworking 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 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-ecommerce times. The Internet is a free medium in the sense that anyone can get a connection. Virtually all mailing lists are free and the idea that the participants of the Dutch Webgrrls mailing list would have to pay for it met with enormous resistance that resulted in 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 change 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 1997/98. At the first official general assembly in the spring of 1998, it was decided that access to the mailing list would remain free.

On track

With the revolution over, the Webgrrls settled down. Discussions on the list returned to the topics of computers and the Internet in the broadest sense of the words. The membership count, which had dropped below 600, started rising again. This time, merely because of the more common possibilities of gaining access, there were a lot more women with no computer or Internet experience.

Women were again very enthusiastic about the list. Finally 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 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 realize that, contrary to what they had always been led to believe, they were capable of understanding, doing, and enjoying technical "things." Those things range from installing and configuring software, to opening up a computer and inserting hardware, to designing Web sites, and much more.

The members of the board were dedicated to not ending up in an ivory tower and therefore avidly took 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 organized.

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 special interest group (SIG), 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 repetitive stress injury. Two months later, 45 Webgrrls attended an IRL-meeting about these topics. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds enlightened the highly interested group, 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.

Explosive growth

The Webgrrls had by then grown to about 1000 members and the media were rediscovering the group. More and more often, the Webgrrls were mentioned in articles on and off line. This led to a dramatic growth rate; at the end of March 1999, there were 1400 Dutch Webgrrls and six months later the 2000th woman came aboard and since then, numbers have grown by almost 150 per month.

The members of this community have decided the board should direct the association toward a force that will enable all Dutch women to acquire hands-on knowledge of the Internet and new media. This should prevent women from falling behind with new technology while offering an ideal opportunity for women with limited possibilities to gain independence. In particular, those who must remain at home, because of small children or handicaps, can build a blooming business on the Web, as many members have proven. Online contacts have occasionally created new companies amongst Webgrrls.

With so many women joining the group, new ideas and initiatives sprout almost daily and more and more women get together IRL and become friends. This strengthens the "us-feeling" within the Webgrrls, and as a result, more women want to actively participate in the planning of events organized in the name of, and for, the 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 organized, and the more women join the Webgrrls, etc. For 2000, we have set our goals high. We want to grow from 2400 (as of 1 January 2000) to 5000 by the end of the year.

The larger the group gets, the more women are reached. As always, hearing about an initiative from a friend or a neighbor works a lot better than all other forms of advertising. The women's communities in The Netherlands often work for the Webgrrls: a very large percentage of the members have 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 amounts 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 the Internet.

The board was reluctant to concede, because many members were afraid all the oldies would unsubscribe from the main list and there would be no one left to answer questions, thereby leaving the newbies in the dark and losing them as well. After some debate and a poll, however, we decided to give the experiment a chance and the "IT-list" was born.

As it turns out, this solution caters to 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.

We have learned from this and are now much less reluctant to found new SIGs. We now have 10 mailing lists and we expect the number to go up with the increase of the number of Webgrrls.

The steady membership growth of the Webgrrls and the activities created a problem for the board. We had so far organized and done everything ourselves, with the incidental help of a small number of others. However, we were starting to drown in the amount of work involved with the Webgrrls. All board members have full-time jobs and Webgrrls work is voluntary and done in our spare time.

We realized we were on the wrong track; a board is supposed to manage, not organize and execute as well. In October 1999, we 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 responsibilities. 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.

Media exposure

Mouth-to-mouth advertising 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 because by now, there are so many mailing lists and so many activities. So, we recently had an attractive pamphlet made that members can give to potential Webgrrls.

This pamphlet is now available from a couple of computer stores where Webgrrls work and from the Dutch ISPA (Internet Service Provider's Association). And of course, many Webgrrls carry a couple of pamphlets with them to give to interested women in case the subject is broached.

However, in order to be able to fulfill the mission the members wish to accomplish--to reach every woman in the Netherlands--the Webgrrls will have to gain a lot more media attention. So far, virtually all media exposure has been initiated by the media themselves. Only on very few occasions have we sent 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 sent have had very good coverage in the media; women and the Internet are obviously an interesting subject and journalists and editors are most willing to give it due attention. So it's up to us to make the most of this attention.

Even though we are not drawing continuous media attention the group has gained good contacts in government and the Internet society in The Netherlands. The influence on decision makers is growing almost as fast as the number of Webgrrls.

IRL activities

Training days

Twice a year the group holds training days. During those training days, a diverse array of Internet-related workshops is offered. Training days have so far offered the following workshops:

Future training days may also include:

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 attendants it has been the start of a professional life as a Web designer.


The KO-grrls have developed into a group of women who appreciate their fellow entrepreneurs. Since many of them work alone from their own homes, the KO-grrls are their colleagues. They share with each other 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 organized 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 organized in pubs, cafés, and restaurants. Webgrrls gather to finally meet virtual friends IRL, or renew established friendships. All meetings are organized 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 homemade 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 IRL contact. This creates very warm feelings toward the Webgrrls, since that's the organization that brought people together. IRL meetings make women feel in touch with the Webgrrls and they are more inclined to become actively involved.


Future activities will include a 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. Webgrrl NL plans to develop computer-based training 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, nongovernmental organization, and European funding requires extreme amounts of time handling all 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. The good thing about this is the larger active involvement of the members. The revolution being long ago, the women really believe in the potential of the group and are very willing to offer their time to this women's community.

Development will likely proceed toward an official headquarters, "manned" permanently by someone who performs the administrative chores. This will leave the board much-needed time for management and planning.

There also seems to be a need to split apart from Webgrrls (WG) 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 important, the Dutch group has always run without any support (or much contact) from the United States.

Now that WG International is professionalizing and commercializing its organization; there has been an appeal to raise membership payments. The need to raise (extra) money in order to send it off to the United States 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.

Conclusions and lessons we have learned

We have come a long way and taken a couple of tumbles in the process. But now we have a successful organization 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 organization, it's a good idea to communicate openly with all those involved. We lost a lot of time and goodwill inside and outside the group with the revolution resulting from the lack of exchanges between the initial board and the rest of the Webgrrls. This could probably have been prevented.
  2. With the growth of the number of Webgrrls, founding SIGs is inevitable. We feared losing people from the main mailing list, but it turned out we were losing people 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 organize and execute everything itself. Workgroups have to be formed to organize and do things, while the board keeps an eye on things. Managing a large organization takes a lot of time, and execution of tasks should therefore be delegated to others than the board members. Otherwise, the board members will be swamped with work in no time at all and it won't be long before they go under, leaving the organization in disarray.
  4. IRL meetings are important to get people involved in the organization. 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.