A little while back, the New York Times reported that, as Wikipedia contributors, women are grossly underrepresented:

In 10 short years, Wikipedia has accomplished some remarkable goals. More than 3.5 million articles in English? Done. More than 250 languages? Sure.

But another number has proved to be an intractable obstacle for the online encyclopedia: surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.

About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University.

For Slate, Heather MacDonald rebuts:

For anyone who is actually interested in finding out whether sexism currently shapes participation in public discourse, Wikipedia is a dream come true. Feminists have been complaining for years about the unequal representation of females on op-ed pages and in influential book reviews, magazines, and journals. In 2005, for example, political commentator Susan Estrich prominently accused editor Michael Kinsley of excluding female writers from the Los Angeles Times’ opinion section. Estrich’s only evidence for Kinsley’s alleged animosity to women was the lack of gender proportionality among Times contributors, which a posse of Estrich’s female students at the University of Southern California law school had been tracking. A New York outfit called the OpEd Project performs the same bean-counting more widely, running a regularly updated gender breakdown of opinion pieces at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and Salon. And last week, Meghan O’Rourke (writing in Slate) and Robin Romm (writing for the Double X blog) reported the results of yet another such tally, this one by the women’s literary group VIDA, which counted bylines at 14 influential magazines, book reviews, and literary journals over the course of 2010. Pointing to VIDA’s findings—namely, that male bylines outnumbered female ones—O’Rourke concluded that “decisions about who and what gets published” must not be “the result of merit alone.” Romm, meanwhile, used the occasion to observe portentously that “the gatekeepers of literary culture—at least at magazines—are still primarily male.” Neither felt the need to determine the underlying ratio of male to female writers before decrying the byline imbalance.

The idea that these gender imbalances represent gatekeeper bias was demonstrably false even before the Wiki reality check. Any female writer or speaker who is not painfully aware of the many instances in which she has been included in a forum because of her sex is self-deluded. Far from being indifferent—much less hostile—to female representation, every remotely mainstream organization today assiduously seeks to include as many females as possible in its ranks. Nevertheless, the idea that someone or something is inhibiting women’s intellectual and political involvement remains robust, which is where Wikipedia comes in. Famously, Wikipedia has no gatekeepers. Anyone can write or edit an entry, either anonymously or under his or her own name. All that is required is a zeal for knowledge and accuracy. (The desire to share knowledge and the drive to correct errors are the top motivations of contributors, the Wikimedia study found.) Wikipedia provides a naturally occurring control group to test the theory that females’ low participation rate in various public forums is the result of exclusion.

It’s not impossible that an atmosphere dominated by men would be inhospitable to women even if there aren’t any formal gatekeepers. Web has commented on Wikipedia in the past as being very clannish (and biased). Given the number of male contributors, this would inevitably have a gender dimension. There are a lot of organizations that don’t formally exclude anyone but that people outside certain demographics would be uncomfortable. However, if the association or non-association is entirely voluntary, is there any damage done?

The answer to that is not necessarily “no.”

Given that Wikipedia doesn’t pay the vast majority of its contributors (if it pays any), that Wikipedia contributions are anonymous and therefore not a launching pad to a writing career, and apparently the contentious atmosphere of the sausage factory (errr, in more ways than one I suppose), it’s arguably the case that women are being done a favor here. It’s not their time being wasted. However, if you read past the first couple sentences of the New York Times article, you get to this:

Her effort is not diversity for diversity’s sake, she says. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be,” Ms. Gardner said in an interview on Thursday. “The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know.”

“Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” she said. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs. And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on “Sex and the City” includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on “The Sopranos” includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode.

These strike me as quite legitimate concerns. MacDonald is so buys knocking down feminist tackle dummies that she doesn’t even address these points. I am not inclined to believe that a lack of diversity is inherently a problem. In the past, I have pushed back against forcing men to take down Incredible Hulk posters cause women might think that they are guilty and choose to work somewhere else. A lot of the time, I ask… “so what if they do? Is the job getting done?”

But a project like Wikipedia is different. It could really stand to be improved with greater diversity. If the contributing population more closely matched that of the reading population, it would put out a product more useful to a larger number of people, which is Wikipedia’s stated purpose.

Category: Server Room

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7 Responses to Women of Wikipedia (Or Lack Thereof)

  1. Kevin says:

    As a huge fan of Wikipedia, I have to disagree with you. Anyone can contribute to the dialogue. If women want to contribute, they can. I just don’t buy the argument that it’s not inclusive enough. The world is not always going to be perfectly balanced between men and women. While Wikipedia articles on Sex and the City might be shorter than the Sopranos, who really cares? I’ll bet that one of two things is true. Either (a) women who care enough to write about SATC do so on their websites/blogs, or (b) not as many women care to write about SATC as men do about the Sopranos. Some people (usually those who don’t have children of both gender) just don’t understand that women and men are different.

  2. trumwill says:

    My point is not that it’s a loss to would-be woman contributors. Rather, that it’s a loss to women who use Wikipedia. Who cares that the entry for Sex in the City is shorter? People who go onto Wikipedia to find out about Sex in the City. Female consumers, who would stand to benefit from more female contributors.

  3. Kevin says:

    But doesn’t the fact that women are less likely to contribute to Wikipedia mean that women are less likely to rely on Wikipedia? I realize the two points do not necessarily follow logically, but I bet they’re both true. And if so, then what’s the harm? It’s a resource available to everyone. If women choose not to contribute to it or use it, then so be it. We need to get past the idea that something can be all things to all people.

  4. Maria says:

    I’ve often been embarassed by how little women I meet in casual situations and even on the Net care or known about current affairs, history, economics, or other serious subjects.

    I don’t remember women in general being so trivial when I was younger. I remember that fashion magazines like Glamour and Mademoiselle actually had serious articles in them in the 60s and 70s. Maybe not serious in the way The Atlantic or Harper’s is serious, but much more substantial than the idiotic celebrity fluff that most women’s magazines feature today.

    Side note: I use Wikipedia often for research and I’ve sometimes come across information I knew was inaccurate. Yet I’ve never been motivated to contact them and point out the inaccuracy. Would a man have done differently in the same case? I can’t say.

  5. trumwill says:

    Kevin, I don’t doubt that more men than women use Wikipedia, but I do seriously doubt that the disparity is anywhere close to 85/15.

    Maria, this man wouldn’t have done differently. Web’s reports have probably turned me off of ever becoming a contributor. At most, I would contribute to something of relatively narrow interest like Impact Comics or something.

  6. Peter says:

    Side note: I use Wikipedia often for research and I’ve sometimes come across information I knew was inaccurate. Yet I’ve never been motivated to contact them and point out the inaccuracy.

    You can just edit the article to remedy the inaccuracy.

  7. stone says:

    Yeah, I’ve been looking into all the protocol for editing Wikipedia. The Lara Logan profile really needs some clarification … but the kids keep distracting me.

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