Wiki-women, where are you? Over 90 percent of Wikipedia’s editors are male, and these pioneers tend to make fewer changes to articles than male editors.
It’s unclear if this imbalance is another example of women being underrepresented in tech and science – or if there is something unique about Wikipedia that makes it more attractive to men.
Wikipedia is a free Internet encyclopedia that is written and edited by volunteers called “Wikipedians”. According to the site’s own Wikipedia entry, “almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site, and it has about 100,000 regularly active contributors.”
Of the Wikipedians who began editing in 2011 only 14 percent were female. This is actually an improvement on the 10 percent of new editors who joined in 2010, 9 percent for 2009 and 8 percent in 2008. In total, around 9 percent of the Wikipedia family are women.
1) The topics don’t interest women
In an article for Slate Magazine, Torie Bosch recently argued that Wikipedia’s sex bias stems from its tendency to write articles that don’t interest women.
Wikipedia won’t house articles on any old topic. If you created a Wikipedia page about your dog, chances are it would get removed pretty quickly. That’s because the subject matter of any entry must reach a certain level of importance, and an article can be deleted if it is about people, groups, companies or websites that aren’t “notable”.
If an article goes up that isn’t notable it can get “flagged for deletion”. Wikipedians will then battle out its merit in an almighty geek off. In her article, Bosch brought to the world’s attention the bitter dispute between whether Kate Middleton’s wedding gown should get its own Wiki page. If you clicked on the previous hyperlink, you’ll see that the fashionistas won this time.
Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales told Bosch, “We have over 100 articles on different Linux distributions, some of them quite obscure, but the wedding dress of Kate Middleton’s wedding gown was flagged for deletion.” According to Bosch, “the same editors who deem those Linux articles important might dismiss articles on makeup, say, as “some fluffy girl topic”—despite significant cultural impact.”
While I’m personally not bothered by Middleton’s dress, or Linux distributions for that matter, Bosch makes a good point. Women, in general, seem to be more interested in wedding dresses than men. (And I don’t know anyone interested in Linux distributions.)
But, gendered articles can’t explain the massive editorial discrepancy between men and women. The vast majority of Wikipedia articles are fairly gender neutral. I can’t imagine that a female a lack of interest – or bursting male passion – would explain why the fellas are choosing to edit entries on Bulgaria, Pneumonia or Duran Duran, for example, more than the ladies.
2) Culture Clash
A second argument as to why Wikipedians are mostly men delves a little deeper into the female psyche. It also possibly verges into pseudo-science – so be warned. It’s been argued that, in general, women feel less confident about their abilities and knowledge than men. Consequently, it’s possible that women tend not to feel like they are in a position to put their knowledge into the public sphere of a Wiki.
Any confidence issues could be compounded by nit-picking Wikipedians, who discouragingly delete entries from new editors. Indeed,one small survey found that Wikipedians tended to be disagreeable and closed to new ideas.
Potential female editors might also suffer from “Impostor syndrome”, where they feel like an impostor or fraudulent editor because they believe their accomplishments are not as good as the accomplishments of those around them. A flow on effect from the syndrome means women may be less likely to go for promotions than men, but rather, need to be invited to apply for them. Similarly, women might need to be invited to edit Wikipedia. The problem with this argument is that I couldn’t find any good research to suggest that women are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome than men. (Perhaps you can?)
Still, there is some evidence that the culture of Wikipedia is contributing to the gender divide. To address the discrepancy, Wikipedia launched Teahouse in 2012, a supportive space where experienced editors can invite promising new editors, and any newbies can ask questions without fear of being bitten.
According to a pilot report, 28% of Teahouse participants are women, up from 9% of the wider Wikipedians and they seem to be happy to continue editing Wikipedia.
Does it matter?
With all these sausages contributing to Wikipedia, it begs the question does it make a difference to the content?
Probably, but it’s hard to know for sure. Looking at sex specific sites – vagina gets a much larger entry than penis. The article on prostate cancer is a little longer than breast cancer, but both pieces have strong content.
However, according to Bosch, a couple of pages of female historical figures were slated for deletion – but left intact – suggesting that female driven content skates on thinner ice than male articles. It’s likely that there are more articles written about male figures than females, but away from Wikipedia, history itself as thus far been largely driven and documented by men. So, it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s reflected in Wikipedia’s pages.
This highlights an important reason as to why females should become Wikipedians. When more women are documenting history, no doubt we will be as notable as men.