Why Wikipedia Needs More Ladies


Just 15% of Wikipedia contributors are women — and while this may be why Sex and the City gets a shorter entry than The Sopranos (not that we object to that), it has more important implications too.

According to the Times, Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner hopes to increase women’s participation in the online encyclopedia to 25% by 2015. The reason: “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. If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”

The Times offers numerous examples of lady-crumbs currently left off Wikipedia’s table: SATC, friendship bracelets, and Manolo Blahnik all get relatively short shrift, and female novelist Pat Barker’s entry is dwarfed by that of Niko Bellic, who is a character in Grand Theft Auto. Since Wikipedia is a go-to resource for everything from stoner score-settling to high school term-paper research — and a starting point for much actual journalism — it’s a problem if its version of the knowable universe is a male-dominated one (I’d also guess that this comes up in less stereotypically girly ways than a dearth of info about Manolos). But it’s equally important to think about why the site might be such a sausage party.

Jane Margolis, author of Unlocking the Clubhouse, tells the Times that Wikipedia’s really just suffering from the same gender inequality as most “public thought-leadership forums” — including, say, the Times (or major highbrow magazines). Catherine Orenstein of the OpEd Project says women may be afraid to speak up: “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies.” It’s true that in many public forums, women have to overcome prejudices in order to speak as authorities. But there may be a web-specific reason why men dominate Wikipedia: nerd culture.

The “rise of the female nerd” has been well-documented, and a number of high-profile women give the lie to The Social Network‘s frathouse view of programmer culture. But the image of the male nerd obsessively editing, say, the Niko Bellic entry persists. And it’s not just Wikipedia — social news sites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot remain majority male, with Slashdot clocking in at 82% dudes. Some of these spaces are actively hostile to women (we’re looking at you, Digg), but in Wikipedia’s case the problem is more complex than that. Adding to an entry requires a user not just to set herself up as an authority, but also to sign in and enter an online community that’s deeply focused on information and trivia — a kind of community where women encounter both internal (what does she know?) and external (what’s a girl doing spending time in a place like that?) stigma. Certain forms of geeking out are Cool for women now (liking comic books, for instance), but editing the Pat Barker entry on Wikipedia isn’t one of them.

All of which is a shame because not only could these communities benefit from more women — women could benefit from them as well. Internet utopians have always thought of the web as a gender-free space, and Wikipedia does allow users to register anonymously. Thus the site could be a gateway for women, a place where they could sidestep prejudice and gain experience as authorities that they could take with them into the messier, more gendered real world. This will only work, however, if Wikipedia’s actually welcoming to women — and it needs to break down some barriers, many of them invisible, in order to get there.

Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List [NYT]

Image via Chepko Danil Vitalevich/Shutterstock.com

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