Wikipedia has turned 10 – as I’m sure you’ve heard by now. Like all good organisations celebrating an anniversary, it is engaging in a little navel-gazing – and discovering some interesting things. To wit …
Yesterday the thoughtful Stefanie of So many books emailed me an article from The New York Times because she remembered that I’d mentioned being a Wikipedia contributor. Thanks a bunch Stefanie. I thoroughly enjoyed the article, which is titled Define gender gap? Look up Wikipedia’s contributor list.
It turns out that I’m a rare beast. According to the article, only about 13% of Wikipedia contributors (editors) are women, and the average age of contributors is the mid-20s. I cannot tell a lie. I am in fact somewhat older than that and, if you haven’t guessed already, I am a woman.
How does this finding accord with my experience? I have, over the last three years, attended two Wiki meet-ups in my city. At both there were two or three women to the ten or so men. Hmm … a bit better than 13% but not much. It was certainly a disproportion I noticed. As for age, I would have to say that the majority were over 30 years old …
running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving world that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.
There is probably some truth in this. Contributing to Wikipedia is not hard, technically speaking, but it can be daunting if you are a little unconfident and nervous around technology. And, I suppose, the whole premise of an encyclopedia is to provide facts – not opinions – about subjects, though really it’s a little more organic than that. Some subjects – at least those I’m interested in (but I’m a woman of course!) – are not black and white. Take literature, for example. An article about a writer needs to provide the facts of that writer’s life – a general biography – but it should also provide a sense of their work and here there is some opportunity to explore a range of ideas about that writer’s style, themes, and so on. These ideas need to be researched and cited so that users can trust it, but it is more than a simple recitation of facts. Wikipedia’s principles require that your work not be “original” but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a dry recitation of facts.
However, there are other factors, besides these two, that may discourage women – and one is that Wikipedia can be a fairly aggressive place. While there are a lot of enthusiastic, friendly and helpful contributors and administrators in Wikipedia, there is also more aggro than I expected. It is not pleasant when you are a new contributor to be rather abruptly or rudely called to task for what is a misunderstanding or an honest mistake. It is also not pleasant – whether you are new or not – to get caught up in an article controversy where contributors spend more time insulting each other than working out a compromise. I have experienced both. These are things that women, perhaps, are less willing to put up with? I’ll say no more on this – but hope that Wikimedia executives, trolling the web, might just come by and add it to their things to think about.
All this, though, begs the question: Does it matter if most of the contributors are young males? Well, yes, I think it does. And Sue Gardner does too. She gives several examples of “gender disparity” in terms of emphasis. I’ll repeat just one that would interest litbloggers. She checked the article, she says, on one of her favourite writers, Pat Barker (the author, readers here probably know, of the Regeneration trilogy). Barker’s article at the time comprised three paragraphs. By contrast, the article on Niko Bellic was about five times as long. Niko Bellic, if you don’t know, is a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV! Need I say more? (Get your value judgements free here!)
So, what does Sue Gardner plan to do about the problem? Well, she plans “to use subtle persuasion and outreach though her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies…”. She says:
Gender is a hot-button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it … I am not interested in triggering those feelings.
Doesn’t that just about say it all!