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Wikipedia wants YOU (if you’re a woman)

February 4, 2011

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 …

Gender symbols

Gender symbols (Courtesy:CKSinfo.com)

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 …

Anyhow, Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation suggests that her goal to increase the percentage of women contributors is

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!

25 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 8:39 am

    Interesting piece.

    That said, I would personally argue that GTA IV has vastly more cultural significance than the Regeneration trilogy (and not just low cultural significane, it’s a milestone in computer games becoming a serious art form in their own right).

    That’s probably not the reason for the disparity though.

    The final quote does rather say it all, yes.

    • February 4, 2011 10:51 am

      Good for you Max – I won’t (can’t, since I clearly am not up on video games) argue with that, so I’ll just take your point re GTA IV because I know you get my underlying point too re the disparity. I think most of the examples she gives could have similar arguments made for them – but the principle still stands I think.

      I did in fact start off on another tack re the gender balance issue but might explore that more generally in another more general (!) post. It’s being pondered now….

  2. February 4, 2011 10:20 am

    ” Wikipedia can be a fairly aggressive place.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. There was a time I wanted to become a contributor. But the topic that interested me had this very heated argument which quickly turned into racist insults. I thought it was better to stay out of it. Then there were the arrogant bunch who think they know everything and delete other people’s contributions.

    It totally put me off. I think women on the whole like to work as a team. We hear each other out when it comes to collaborative work. Though I also believe this shouldn’t stop more women being contributors. Excellent topic 🙂

    • February 4, 2011 11:01 am

      Oh thanks Zee for responding. If the Wiki people do come by, a few corroborating comments won’t go astray.

      I agree re working on a team. Wikipedia is well set up to do that since people pretty well by definition (either purposely or just by popping by to edit) collaborate on articles and wider projects but, as we both know, you can get caught up in some unpleasant and upsetting stuff. I have felt personally distressed on a couple of occasions but worked through it. That said I don’t contribute as intensively as I did once – but that’s mostly because I took up blogging and got some contract work. There’s only so much time.

  3. February 4, 2011 12:31 pm

    Fascinating issue and really well discussed, WG. I honestly would never have guessed this gender disparity, but that’s probably because the only (consistent) Wikipedia contributor I know is you! I absolutely believe that this gender disparity can have a negative effect on the content. Bit worrying, really. And lastly, well done to you for sticking to yours guns when you’ve experienced aggro!

    • February 4, 2011 5:38 pm

      Thanks Hannah … it’s certainly an interesting issue. Perhaps there’s a PhD in it?

  4. February 4, 2011 3:21 pm

    Tangentially relevant to this – in that it addresses not gender but the ease with which anger can spill onto the net – is the post at Grogsgamut’s blog today, which he ends by advising people not to blog while angry. I would go further and say don’t go near the computer at all while angry – but sadly people do, and then you get the kinds of experience you mention in your involvement with Wikipedia.

    • February 4, 2011 6:34 pm

      Thanks zmkc. I don’t know Grogsgamut’s blog but will check it. But certainly, I’ve seen anger and misreadings of people cause all sorts of trouble in online groups. My philosophy is, as you say, keep away from the computer if you are angry OR if you must, type out your frustration to vent and then delete!

  5. February 4, 2011 7:47 pm

    What is really sad about this is the extent to which parts of it, especially the bits about the gender disparity and the in-fighting and abuse reflect much of the academic world in general. You would think that what we ought to be concerned with is finding and holding onto the truth, wouldn’t you, rather than scoring points to boost up egos.

    • February 4, 2011 8:18 pm

      Absolutely … the older one gets the more one realises humans don’t change a lot, which is a bit depressing really, isn’t it?

  6. February 4, 2011 9:19 pm

    Gee, I’m only a very very minor contributor to Wikipedia but I didn’t realise I was part of a minority LOL.
    Yeah, I got ticked off for making a mistake too, but was lucky to stumble on a nice person who responded to my grovelling apology with practical help *phew*.
    But I wonder whether the gender imbalance is more a matter of time. Women tend to be doing the double-shift at home (work + housework +(optional extra) children) and they are often involved in f2f voluntary work as well. So (speaking for myself) when we hit the net, we want some fun and relaxation, not more ‘work’.
    And since we’re not usually ego driven, we don’t need the frisson of seeing our contribution in an encyclopedia.
    What made me get involved was low-level indignation that Wikipedia was full of American authors and didn’t have anything about Australian ones. But now that some other good soul seems to be working on that omission (is it you, Sue?) I don’t feel the same impulse.
    Lisa

    • February 4, 2011 9:34 pm

      Glad you mentioned the time issue Lisa, because I did think that was probably another issue for women, particularly those in the younger age groups than retired ones like me!

      As for work — well I guess, in a way, writing a blog review or a Wiki article are both work, depending on how you view it. The Wiki article does need to be referenced and more widely researched than a blog book review – but I don’t really see it as work. I enjoy the research and seeing something useful come together that I hope others will use. It’s all about how you like to spend your time isn’t it?

      I have done quite a lot of work on Australian authors – particularly women authors – both entering new ones, and tagging existing ones with the appropriate categories. I’ve done less since I started the blog (funny that) – now I tend to do more corrections and small additions that new articles. Perry Middlemiss did quite a bit at one stage too, but I’m not sure if he is still.

  7. February 4, 2011 9:42 pm

    From time to time I look an Aussie author up on WP and there’s not much there, and I think to myself, well, when I’m retired I’ll read that author’s oeuvre and then I’ll write a proper article… it does take time, and I’m very conscious of getting it right because I know I rely on WP for most of my author info.

    • February 4, 2011 10:14 pm

      Yes, that’s the thing. Some people just write “stubs” – like two liners to get the article started, the subject/person documented at least – but I don’t find that satisfying. I like to write a decent article – not necessarily complete but a fair bio, a list of works, a list of awards, and something about standing, themes, style etc. It takes time to do that (as you would know). You don’t need to read the oeuvre because it’s not supposed to be “original” research. That said, the ones I’ve done I’ve certainly read some of their works, otherwise it’s hard to make sense of the research particularly when you are talking themes, style.

      Perry did a lot of “stubs” as I recollect for award winners (and maybe all the MF nominations?) and I guess there is value in getting the names in there but frustrating when you get to the article and there’s nothing there.

  8. February 5, 2011 1:19 am

    I would have thought since Wiki contributors are underpaid, the majority would be women.

    • February 5, 2011 1:33 am

      I’m glad I wasn’t drinking coffee when I read this or I would have spluttered it all over my laptop!

  9. February 5, 2011 1:38 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article and it produced such an interesting post. I appreciate your insights into the Wiki culture since I’ve never “known” anyone who contributed at any level to it. I’ve sometimes thought it would be fun to contribute but my time is filled with so many other things and then I think, what could I possibly add anyway? But, maybe someday.

    • February 5, 2011 1:20 pm

      Oh there’s lots you could add I’m sure … not only articles to be written or improved. Just start poking around your niche interests and you’ll be surprised (I’m sure). There are many “clean-up” and “enhancement” projects, some of them more routine, such as adding categories, improving linking between articles. I sometimes do these while watching TV.

      (Oops, I meant to add too – but not while you’re studying. You have enough to do now but, you know, down the track, moving forward, in the future sometime …

  10. February 5, 2011 2:08 am

    I tried to edit an article twice and my additions were immediately rejected by some zealous controller. I KNOW that what I wrote was correct and also useful. At that point I gave up and haven’t touched it since.

    • February 5, 2011 1:33 pm

      Oh what a shame Tom. Knowing you, I’m sure it was useful and correct. Sometimes you need to stnad your ground. Each article has a discussion page on which you can raise issues, and there are administrators you can approach if you want to suss out an issue. They are volunteers but have to have proven themselves to be calm reasonable people (though they are human and can get caught up in the heat at times too I’ve seen).

      I have used administrators on few occasions. I called one in when someone kept turning an article I was trying to fix up into a negative rant and I started to feel out of my depth, and other times have asked for clarifications re protocol etc. But, of course, it’s perfectly fair enough to say you don’t need this hassle and back away. After all, there is so much we can do with our time. Why invite angst into it eh?

  11. February 5, 2011 3:49 am

    I’m completely and utterly shocked. You’re a woman? Cheers! K

    • February 5, 2011 1:27 pm

      I know, I know, it’s hard to believe and I didn’t give it away lightly – but sometimes you just have to be honest with the world!

  12. February 7, 2011 7:06 am

    Thanks for an excellent post! I’ve always had this query in the back of my mind as to who actually wrote those Wiki entries. And I’m truly impressed that you’re one of the few female and over mid 20’s contributors! Keep up the good work and yes, I think it’s justified that you appeal for more help in terms of the balance of demographics. I’ve thought about contributing before, but thought it’s just too much work, which I’m sure it is. So I’m just happy to be linked by it. My book review of The Glass Castle on my blog has been linked on Wiki’s page of the book. Thanks again for this very informative post.

    • February 7, 2011 7:53 pm

      Why thankyou Arti … and good for you being linked. You can contribute at all sorts of levels. One day give it a go, and see what you think.

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