Background: I participated pretty heavily in a topic-centered online community. I joined soon after it was created, so there were a lot of discussions about how to run the site, what's in-scope and what's not, and so on. Over time, the moderator and a couple other community leaders became increasingly hostile to me and nobody else called them out. The hostility seemed disproportionate; yes we disagreed on some key matters of site governance, but I behaved more respectfully and carefully than others who didn't get treated this way. Eventually I left.

I recently had a conversation with one of the users who stood by during this, in which he said approximately: "Well what did you expect? That's how guys work -- if a woman pushes back against a guy all the other guys are going to rally to his side".

It's true that I was one of the only identifiable women -- perhaps the only identifiable woman (don't remember now) -- on the site at the time. In the 21st century and in an online community not prone to attract teenagers (the average age was probably over 30), it never occurred to me that this could be an issue. Some of the ad-hominem attacks I received take on whole new meanings in light of this.

This is far from universal, of course; I participate in several online communities (like this one!) where this doesn't happen to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, to other women. Or so I think -- but I was active in that one community and didn't see it happening either, so maybe I'm insufficiently perceptive? For all I know, maybe half the "Joe"s and "Mike"s on my communities aren't who they appear to be, to say nothing of the pseudonyms.

So my question is in two parts:

  1. Are women still at a disadvantage in online communities composed of adults? I'm looking for evidence, not anecdotes -- surely sociologists or others have studied this. What does current research say?

  2. What can community members do to detect and minimize this kind of behavior before it gets to name-calling and the like? I'm part of well-behaved communities now; what do I and my fellow users need to do to keep them that way? What are the early warning signs?

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    This question bothered me when I first read it. Having come back for a second look, I think I know what feels wrong to me. It's the anecdote in this question and the response of the bystander. To me, that response seems indicative of a prejudice against males. While males might have a statistical leaning toward aggression (I don't find that hard to believe at all.), that sweeping statement disrespects men who curb the tendency. Many men do, and I believe it's entirely inappropriate to do otherwise. I'm not sure what could be changed/improved here. This just how I feel, being a male reading it.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 2:55
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    @jpmc26 for what it's worth, I find the statement disrespectful too. It wrongs both men and women -- men who aren't like that, and women who are expected to accept and work around that attitude. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 2:57
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    You may be misinterpreting their lack of empathy for hostility. See freakonomics.com/2013/02/24/…, "why only 16% of Wikipedia’s editors are female, even though women outnumber men on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest".
    – Chloe
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 4:41
  • 3
    @Chloe some of both, probably, but I definitely experienced blatant, unmistakable hostility. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 4:45
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    "That's how guys work -- if a woman pushes back against a guy all the other guys are going to rally to his side" That doesn't ring true. Women have a much stronger in-group bias than men have. Is there a possibility that people were hostile because they just didn't like you as an individual?
    – dan-gph
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 7:43

3 Answers 3


I'm aware of some research by Susan Herring. "Gender and Participation in Computer-Mediated Linguistic Discourse" concluded

while both men and women respond negatively to adversarial discourse such as this one, women respond differently on the basis of their negative reactions, producing less adversarial discourse and participating less in adversarial exchanges altogether. It is concluded that gender-based communication preferences may inhibit women from participating in even professionally beneficial activities. Adoption of the rhetoric of male success is seen as a more participatory alternative.

Four years later, she looks at the content of public messages in "Two Variants of an Electronic Message Schema"

Both men and women structure their messages in interactive ways, and that for both, the pure exchange of information takes second place to the exchange of views. Significant gender differences are found in how electronic messages are oriented, but the differences are not those predicted by the stereotype. Although messages posted by women contain somewhat more interactional features, they are also more informative, in contrast with male messages which most often express (critical) views. The evidence further suggests that members of the minority gender on each list shift their style in the direction of the majority gender norms.

In 2002, she wrote a chapter in The Handbook of Language and Gender (J. Holmes & M. Meyerhoff (Eds.), 2003) "Gender and Power in On-line Communication"

Gender differences in on-line communication tend to disfavor women. In mixed-sex public discussion groups, females post fewer messages, and are less likely to persist in posting when their messages receive no response. Even when they persist, they receive fewer responses from others (both females and males) and do not control the topic or the terms of the discussion except in groups where women make up a clear majority of participants.

All of this seems to indicate that men don't purposefully gang up on women (as the user you spoke to suggested), but that they tend toward more aggressive behavior that women generally find discouraging.

The third article addresses your second question

Some evidence suggests that women participate more actively and enjoy greater influence in environments where the norms of interaction are controlled by an individual or individuals entrusted with maintaining order and focus in the group. .... While this result may appear initially puzzling - how can women be "freer" to participate when they are "controlled" by a group leader? - it makes sense if the leader's role is seen as one of ensuring a civil environment, free from threats of disruption and harassment. The need for such insurance points to the fundamental failure of a "self-regulating" democracy on the internet to produce equitable participation: when left to its own devices, libertarianism favors the most aggressive individuals, who tend to be male.

So, I would suggest that in a "calm" period, responsibilities and procedures for handling any sort of aggressive flare-up should be determined, so that if things start to go pear-shaped, the women in your communities have those resources to draw on (instead of just leaving the community).

EDIT I looked up the research referred to in Chloe's comment. "Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society" (Gneezy et al) states:

In this study we use an experimental task to explore whether there are gender differences in selecting into competitive environments across two distinct soci- eties: the Maasai in Tanzania and the Khasi in India. The societies are unique in that the Maasai represent an example of a patriarchal society, whereas the Khasi are matrilineal.

We observe some interesting data patterns. For example, Maasai men com- pete at roughly twice the rate as Maasai women, evidence that is consistent with data from Western societies that use different tasks and smaller relative stake levels. Yet, this data pattern is reversed among the Khasi, where women choose the competitive environment more often than Khasi men. We interpret these results as potentially providing insights into the underlying sources of the observed gender differences. We should, however, caution the reader that even though we find suggestive results, care should be taken when making inference from the data patterns observed herein because several important factors vary across the two societies. And, we have sampled a limited number of villages. We suspect that our results will not be a universal truth amongst all matrilineal villages, rather other important factors will interact with matriliny to produce the data patterns observed herein. More research is certainly warranted.

So it may be that we observe the gender differences written about above because western society is strongly patriarchal. There may not be a biological effect, or it may be overwhelmed by the cultural effect. Either way, caution should be taken when describing men and women's behavior.

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    Thank you for this thorough and informative answer! Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 19:55
  • Very good answer and it shows that the gender differences are not necessarily malicious or even intentional.
    – user1896
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 11:34
  • @YvetteColomb Indeed ;) Commented May 2, 2018 at 13:42

I'm going to focus on the second bullet point here, giving a general answer to you about how to prevent discrimination- of any kind.

As an admin/moderator:

You can add a "be nice" policy (this is Stack Exchange's):

Whether you've come to ask questions, or to generously share what you know, remember that we’re all here to learn, together. Be welcoming and patient, especially with those who may not know everything you do. Oh, and bring your sense of humor. Just in case.

That basically covers it. But these three guidelines may help:

Rudeness and belittling language are not okay. Your tone should match the way you'd talk in person with someone you respect and whom you want to respect you. If you don't have time to say something politely, just leave it for someone who does.

Be welcoming, be patient, and assume good intentions. Don't expect new users to know all the rules — they don't. And be patient while they learn. If you're here for help, make it as easy as possible for others to help you. Everyone here is volunteering, and no one responds well to demands for help.

Don't be a jerk. These are just a few examples. If you see them, flag them:

Name-calling. Focus on the post, not the person. That includes terms that feel personal even when they're applied to posts (like "lazy", "ignorant", or "whiny"). Bigotry of any kind. Language likely to offend or alienate individuals or groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. will not be tolerated. At all. (Those are just a few examples; when in doubt, just don't.) Inappropriate language or attention. Avoid vulgar terms and anything sexually suggestive. Also, this is not a dating site. Harassment and bullying. If you see a hostile interaction, flag it. If it keeps up, disengage — we'll handle it. If something needs staff attention, you can use the contact us link at the bottom of every page. We're proud to be a large, user-driven space on the internet where name-calling, harassment, and other online nastiness are almost non-existent. It's up to all of us to keep it that way.

In summary, have fun, and be good to each other.

This could be on a page on the site, in a TOS, or better, both. The best form of prevention is creating policies often to make everyone aware that this behavior isn't OK at all. There should be an easy way to report this behavior so it is quickly removed and necessary action can be taken. If not enough is done, users may leave (as you've seen firsthand).

As a user (not being targeted):

Stand up for that user. That's really all that you can do. If you're not going against the administration, it'd be a good idea to email them to let them know about what's going on. If you are going against them, you might need a few more users to stand up with you to let them know that a lot of their community is against their action.

As a user (getting targeted):

First of all, go into this knowing that, in the end, this issue might not be resolved. You'll have to be OK to walk away (why would you want to be apart of a community like that?).

In general:

Be polite, ask what you did wrong (and fix it if they state anything), and never try to make a scene. Making a scene will destroy any of your hope and likely will make them more against you.

Warning signs:

This one is kinda hard. I'd say that any indication of this general type of behavior, even if it is "meant as a joke" should be watched closely. That particular thread may spark an angry argument that may cause discrimination. In addition, that particular user may actually have those feelings and they may bubble up

A technical filter for a moderator might be nice that emails you when certain keywords come up so you can take a peek at them.

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    I think it's important to note that if you are identified as a 'discriminated class', your appeals won't make a difference. Discriminators will only be affected by the opinions of their peers, which is why it is so very important to object to this kind of behavior if you are part of the 'privileged class'. For example, misogynists won't listen to feminists, but they will respond to alpha males saying "misogyny is unmanly".
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 18:25

There are several things You can do.

  1. Get out of the line of fire.
    • If you see nothing but bullets coming your way, run.
  2. Keep the discussion on topic.
    • This is true in lots of arguments that people have, they get lost on a bunny trail in the woods. people don't like hearing this and it almost always sounds like an attack, but it is spot on "What does that have to do with {topic}?"
  3. Leave
    • If you are being targeted and they aren't listening anyway, what is the point of staying?
  4. Take a break
    • Call a timeout
    • Acknowledge that the conversation is getting out of control, get a drink of water, take a couple of deep breaths and then come back and read the conversation from the beginning, you may see what is going on and have a different view point on it, or you might wonder if the point is worth fighting over in the first place.

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