Revenge of the Feminerd: Wikipedia Challenge

Jarrah E Hodge
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Earlier this year the New York Times sparked a debate when they reported on the underrepresentation of women among editors on Wikipedia: “the free site that anyone can edit”. The Times reported that just 15% of Wikipedia editors are women. The gap caused the Wikimedia Foundation to aim to raise that number to 25% by 2015, a worthy if unambitious goal.

The article made the rounds on the blogosphere when it ran, but the discussion seems to have fizzled out since then—which is unfortunate since things haven’t changed enough in that short period of time. And who better to look at the gender imbalance on Wikipedia than feminerds?

First, let’s look at why we should care. The original article saw a potential negative outcome of the gender imbalance as underrepresentation of “women’s knowledge” and less thorough discussion of “women’s interests” (they cited friendship bracelets and Sex and the City compared to “men’s interests” The Simpsons and Grand Theft Auto).

The problem with that idea is that no gender has a monopoly on a particular type of knowledge or interests. I’m far more into The Simpsons than friendship bracelets or Sex and the City, and I’m sure there are men for whom the reverse is true. The bigger issue is women just plain being left out of the creation of a hugely important resource for knowledge.

As Dr. Justine Cassell of Carnegie Mellon University states:

“It’s worrisome because Wikipedia is ever more powerful as the canon, the go-to source of ‘knowledge.’ And if women aren’t contributing, then that putatively exhaustive body of knowledge is only reflecting the knowledge of some of our citizens (and I’m guessing that gender is not the only demographic that is imbalanced in Wikipedia).”

But have women already missed the boat? The number of active Wikipedia editors is declining and new editors aren’t sticking around like they used to. Some people worry this means that Wikipedia has either reached a point where it’s mostly complete, or alternately that Wikipedia has jumped the shark and is about to be replaced by something else.

I’m not convinced of either. In a world where new information is generated daily and transmitted instantaneously worldwide, I don’t believe there’s a shortage of things to add to the site. And I don’t think Wikipedia is irrelevant. If anything, I’m using it more often for blog research and seeing it more widely accepted as a legitimate source, as entries have been refined repeatedly since the site launched in 2001.

black and white comic reads The Problem with Wikipedia and shows a chain of information from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to wet t-shirt contests with a divide labeled three hours of fascinated clicking in between

So what’s causing the imbalance and how can it be fixed? Women are reading Wikipedia on an almost equal basis to men, yet not contributing. The New York Times interviewed researchers and social media experts and came up with a variety of possible explanations:

  • Women have different communication styles and find the user interface, technical knowledge, and contentious nature of Wikipedia editing a turn-off.
  • Women are too busy.
  • Solitarily editing is seen as anti-social or too nerdy for women.
  • “Locker-Room” type behavior among editing communities that includes sexist jokes and writing-off valid concerns about offensive content as antithetical to neutrality or free speech.

Spacefem (another woman Wikipedia editor) at The Geek Feminism Blog doesn’t buy that women can’t grasp the basic knowledge of markup tags required to edit Wikipedia. Women are clearly capable of mastering the Wikipedia interface, just as they’ve taken on computer programming and web coding.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, did hear from women who said they were too busy to edit Wikipedia and we know women on average have less free time than men. But a lot of us feminerds spend a fair amount of online time on social networking, fanfiction, gaming, and reading/writing blogs. Maybe time isn’t the issue for everyone, but rather that Wikipedia is seen as less social than the other activities.

The “locker-room” argument and the concern that Wikipedia is too contentious reminds me of often-cited barriers to women in politics. Women are taught to be less comfortable putting themselves out there and defending their ideas. Kat Walsh at Mindspillage says that Wikipedia’s sub-culture is “self-reinforcing,” which means that making space for people whose information wasn’t previously included can be difficult. Gardner found some women who cited instances of men changing “rape scenes” in articles about movies to “sex scenes” or otherwise minimized violence against women.

These elements of the sub-culture, like politics, won’t change unless we get more feminists in there to challenge them. That said, I know a lot of us activists are already over-extended and the idea of taking on even one more fight is daunting.

Last month I went to a talk at Northern Voice by frequent Wikipedia editor Tim Bray, who argued we have a social and historical responsibility to contribute to Wikipedia on those things we’re each experts on in our own way. For those of us who are interested in taking a stab at Wikipedia, we can take some advice from the feminists who have been there. Spacefem suggests that you don’t have to start by totally immersing yourself: “Write articles that are better than other articles. Make improvements, even if they’re small. Do something small. It’s so much easier than running a blog or web page, where you have do make consistent good updates all the time… it’s low-maintenance. It’s great.”

Kat Walsh says to be prepared for disagreements: “It’s a little bit argumentative–or at least, you won’t go very long without encountering something that is going to spark dispute, and it’s expected that sometimes this will happen; you have to either be able to handle conflict without taking it personally, or be able to let it go and find something else to work on. It requires a little bit of self-confidence, to be able to handle criticism well, or to contradict a total stranger when you don’t agree. “

After I’m done with this blog series I’ll be trying my hand at some Wikipedia editing (starting with reading Your First Article). Anyone want to join me?

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Wiki editing ftw

I'm quite proud of my Wikipedia account (which I've had since *before* that study that showed that something like only 15% of contributors were women) and tend to get distracted editing articles on Wikipedia when I should be researching, particularly when I notice that articles in my area of interest are shamefully sparse or incomplete. (Yeah - should be researching.) But I highly recommend it. We all have some knowledge we can share.

If you think Wikipedia is bad

(And it IS bad) TV Tropes is even worse. Since that wiki is much more informal and a lot more opinionated, there is actually a great deal of blatant misogyny that gets into the pages, with male editors often attacking women for being "angry biased feminists" if they try to get rid of it. Which is funny, because TV Tropes actually is a site which seems to acknowledge more than Wikipedia does that the modern world is not past sexism, racism, homophobia etc. That doesn't mean you don't get people who insist that it is (there was one jerk on the Glee page who kept deleting the Unfortunate Implications section for this reason). Wikipedia is bad, but at least its obsession with neutrality and businesslike communication means you usually only have to deal with the more casual privilege-denying sexism, not the blatant, scary stuff.

Most women I know on TV Tropes totally avoid the forums for this reason, because the sexism is so rampant over there. Of course, the forums are where most of the big, macro decisions get hashed out, so it often means that we're left out of making important decisions for the site - only being able to change things at the article level.

If there are fewer women

If there are fewer women editing Wikipedia than there are men, that could mean that women are smarter than men.


<p>There are several things going on here.</p>
<p>1) <em>Generally </em>speaking, while women spend more time online than men (on average), women don't visibly&nbsp;<em>do </em>as much on the internet as men, period. Women use the web differently than men. There certainly <em>are </em>reasons for why women are more likely to shop or chat on Facebook than they are edit a website, but it doesn't change the immediate fact that that's what's happening <strong><a href=" has been happening for a long time</a></strong>. I think, however, that you'll find this is less a gender issue than an age one. I'm only in my mid-twenties, but many of the women I know who are my age, give or take a few years, just don't know how to do much of <em>anything </em>online and are quick to give up that which they don't understand; the younger generation will not be this way, having grown up with better, stabler technology since birth.</p>
<p>2) This idea that "women's interests" are underrepresented compared to "men's" is sexist in itself. For instance, I've never watched <em>Sex in the City</em>, but I <em>have</em> run over hookers in GTA. Maybe women's interests, the things we actually search for, are less "girl" things these days and more just "people" things.</p>
<p>3) <span style="text-decoration: underline;"><strong>It <em>is </em>a learning thing.</strong></span> I don't care what any feminist blogger or Ivory Tower dweller says. As Wikipedia has grown larger and better in terms of quality, it's become more complicated to edit, and therefore a more complicated hobby to take up. When Wiki started, it was all about getting relevant content up. Now it's about the nuances, about [citation needed] and cleaning up language, etc. Those things are not only less fun to edit, but require more knowledge, not only of basic editing, but also of Wikipedia itself, which has <em>thousands </em>of terms it uses on a regular basis. (If you think that "Your First Article" page is enough to get you started on editing Wiki, you truly <em>haven't </em>dived in at all yet.) If you don't employ all these terms and techniques properly, someone more knowledgeable will come along and fix/erase your work, as mentioned in this entry, so editing Wiki can easily turn into a thankless and frustrating job for a new learner. The learning curve is steep(er) now, and so there are fewer editors, altogether.</p>
<p>4) I strongly dislike these sorts of articles that suggest new tech creates a new gender problem. This is <em>often </em>untrue. (I don't know for sure if it is in this case, but I'm just saying.) In reading this, I can't help but wonder, "Were traditional encyclopedias edited by<em> that many</em> women? There were no gender differences between the many different <em>types</em> of traditional encyclopedias?" I also wonder, "What percentage of people, men or women, used encylopedias after they got out of high school and university, prior to Wiki's existence?" I'm guessing the percentages are low in regard to both of those things. Without those sorts of statistics, saying "fewer women edit Wikipedia" is somewhat meaningless, at the very least a small part of a big picture. More women may be editing/using Wikipedia than ever edited/used traditional encyclopedias.</p>
<p>Finally, I question this:&nbsp;</p>
<p style="padding-left: 30px;"><em><span style="font-family: georgia, 'times new roman', serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;"><a style="color: #6dbe45; text-decoration: none;" href=" found</a>&nbsp;some women who cited instances of men changing “rape scenes” in articles about movies to “sex scenes” or otherwise minimized violence against women.</span></em></p>
<p><span style="font-family: georgia, 'times new roman', serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">I've <em>no doubt</em> that this happens, which is tragic and speaks of a much larger problem than whether women are editing Wiki, but how well do women know that it's <em>men </em>doing this? (Frankly, isn't that a sexist assumption?)&nbsp;</span><span style="font-family: georgia, 'times new roman', serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">Often, usernames are fairly ambiguous when it comes to gender. W</span><span style="font-family: georgia, 'times new roman', serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">omen themselves don't always treat rape with the sensitivity and understanding it requires.&nbsp;</span></p>
<p><span style="font-family: georgia, 'times new roman', serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">For the record, I've edited Wiki a number of times since 2006, and I've never encountered sexist behavior. I've encountered a <em>lot </em>of stupidity, but no sexism yet.</span></p>

While feminists debate the merits of editing Wikipedia...

<p><span style="font-family: georgia,'times new roman',serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">... anti-feminists are busy using it to rewrite history and spread propoganda.<br></span></p>
<p style="padding-left: 30px;"><span style="font-family: georgia,'times new roman',serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">I've <em>no doubt</em> that this happens, which is tragic and speaks of a much larger problem than whether women are editing Wiki, but how well do women know that it's <em>men </em>doing this? (Frankly, isn't that a sexist assumption?)</span></p>
<p><span style="font-family: georgia,'times new roman',serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">The reason we know it is men doing this is because various "Men's Rights" online groups like and have been systematically abusing Wikipedia for several years now, mostly to whitewash any and all information about rape and domestic violence against women (as this information doesn't reflect favorably on men). Ditto for pro-life groups. These organizations understand that the propaganda wars of the 21st century will primarily be fought on Google and Wikipedia. If feminists don't understand that, they are doomed to irrelevance.<br></span></p>

Hi Kate, Thanks for sharing -

Hi Kate,

Thanks for sharing - as you pointed out and I mentioned - I have never dived into Wikipedia so it's always helpful to hear from people like you who have.

1) Your first point is really interesting and I have no way to evaluate it - it definitely could be partly an age thing too.
2) I think you'll find that's exactly what I said - that interests don't innately correspond to gender and therefore the concern that we're missing "women's interests" is essentialist and wrongheaded.
3) Again, really good to know. I'm absolutely not claiming to be an expert on the actual process, but other pieces I read by wikipedia editors/contributors did say you could start small and work your way in. If that's not been your experience, that's good to know.
4)I don't think I was saying the technology caused the problem - clearly it's a manifestation of larger issues with gender inequality. But just because it might be better than traditionally-edited encyclopedias in terms of gender contribution doesn't mean there's not room for improvement.

Hope this answers some of your questions. Thanks again for commenting!

Re: 3

3) You are 100% right on this (this is why I edit existing articles, not write new ones). The "Your First Article" page is slightly insane, followed by everything that happens thereafter. My first and only attempt at writing an article was almost immediately listed for immediate deletion and then deleted under two different statutes that I didn't know existed. There's a heck of a lot going on with the people who "patrol" these things (are they actually called the editors?) and they spend a lot of time doing it - kudos - but I was rather dismayed that this whole process of the democratization of information via Wikipedia has been slowed by all sorts of statues and rules that I don't know and haven't been a part of creating. It's like if you *haven't* been a part of it from the beginning, there's too much to try to learn to be a more active part of it.

In any case, the stuff I edit doesn't get a lot of traffic. Not a lot of people looking up eleventh century Norman biographies.

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