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.
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?