Education
Ladies, Can We Talk (About Wikipedia)?

I had two stories about gender and social media cross my computer recently.

The first was The New York Times article “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List” which explained that while Wikipedia–the  free, online encyclopedia “that anyone can edit”–is a top-ten internet destination with more than 3.5 million articles in English alone…less than 15% of the people volunteering to create and edit Wikipedia are women. Potentially,  our culture is being defined online by a homogenous community of “wikipedians” who are almost universally white, Christian, technically-inclined, formally-educated males from the northern hemisphere between the ages of 15 and 49. At very least (ramifications to culture aside), this skews Wikipedia’s content:

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.

Almost immediately after I finished reading the NYT piece, this TED Talk by Johanna Blakley on social media and “the end of gender and age  demographics in marketing” popped up in my feed. According to Blakley, marketers have traditionally used “old school demographics” to set advertising rates and have presumed that if you fall within  certain age and gender demographics  that you will have easily-determined (and in the case of women over 54, unimportant) preferences. However, in this age of social media that we now live in where “people aggregate around things they love, shared interests and values become a far better indicator [of decision-making] than demographics.”  According to Blakley, women’s use of social media outnumbers men’s use (making their tastes and preferences trackable), a fact that will rid us of many of the demeaning, “lame stereotypes” now visible in our culture. I question whether this is a victory for women or marketers, however.

So are women the new rulers of the internet? Alternatively, are they potential victims of systemic cultural bias? Or is there no real conflict between these two stories–is  it that women are more likely to be social-media consumers than online-content creators? Is it perhaps that they flock to Facebook walls while eschewing Wikipedia user pages? Both roles, consumer and creator, require base-levels of education and financial well-being: you must have the money to buy a computer and the time, infrastructure and know-how to surf the web…but the former role is relatively passive while the latter is creative, active and empowering…

Now, here’s the thing: I’ve lived in five states and two coasts of  the United States. My experience has been (and sure, this is anecdotal evidence, but bear with me) that women tend to know stuff. And have ideas. Generally? They’re also pretty damn happy to communicate what they know–often in elaborate detail. This discrepancy is not an issue of ability.

So why aren’t we bringing  our collective voices and knowledge to Wikipedia in greater numbers? As it turns out, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to Wikipedia. According to The OpEd Project, an initiative to expand the range of voices in public discourse, “a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common–whether in members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.”

Wikipedia wants to get to the bottom of this mystery, as well, and in tandem with United Nations University, performed a survey of Wikipedia contributors and readers that concluded:

  • Only 14% had a child.
  • The average age of a Wikipedia contributor or reader was 25.
  • Those that contributed, primarily contributed to fix errors or share knowledge.

Those that did not contribute most often claimed:

  • “I don’t have enough information.” (45%)
  • “I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.” (25%)
  • “I’m happy to just read it.” (46%)
  • “I don’t have time.” (31%)
  • “Others are already doing it, there’s no need for me.” (19%)
  • “I’m not comfortable with the technology.” (16%)

Respondents were more likely to edit if:

  • “A specific topic needed my help.” (40%)
  • “It was clear that others would benefit.” (35%)
  • “I was confident that my contributions would be kept.” (25%)

So, looking to the future, what can women do to become active, creative participants on Wikipedia? Are there GeekMom readers  ready to write an entry? Or maybe you’re more interested in easing into the Wikipedia community. There are lots of bite-sized jobs that need doing:

This begs the greater question: Why am I so gung-ho on bringing the female voice to Wikipeda?

I suspect that if women continue to opt out of public discourse, important needs and issues will continue to go  unaddressed. As I read the NYT Wikipedia gender-gap article, I began thinking about another gender gap–the gender wage gap–and how, as a teenager,  I expected that issue to be resolved by benevolent feminists long before I reached adulthood. I also thought on how,  just recently, House Republicans tried to remove the voices of women from their experience of rape when they attempted in the “No Taxpayer Funding to Pay for Abortion” Bill to redefine rape in terms of a man’s active force, rather than a woman’s denied consent.

Even in the midst of raising families, working jobs in and out of the home and taking care of daily minutiae, women need to find the time to exercise their voices and remain active participants in civic discourse. Wikipedia is an increasingly-popular cultural cornerstone and women’s voices need to be there helping to shape its content and tone.

Special thanks to Dina M, who emailed asking me to write about the Wikipedia gender gap. Your email convinced me that this was an idea worth developing.

Johanna Blakley’s TED Talk: Social Media and the End of Gender


Andrea Schwalm

Andrea is a credentialed parent peer advocate from Long Island, New York who supports and educates families raising children with social, emotional, and behavioral diagnoses. She takes way too many photographs, is learning how to program, and really hopes that the aliens who find Earth first are the benevolent-helpful type...

5 Comments
  1. Replace “woman” with “person of color”, and you’ll have the argument that drove me from being a top Wiki contributor to a sporadic at best contributor. The rest of the Wikipedians could give less than a…fig…whether or not their membership or coverage is properly balanced.

    Wikipedia is really less a decent reference work than a large message board or massively mutliplayer online role playing game.

    • The social aspect that KBC’s talking about is one of the reasons I’ve been leery about contributing further in Wikipedia. I’ve written a few articles and updated some articles but I’ve kept my interaction fairly low, in part because I’ve heard that the politics of Wikipedia are to be avoided at all costs.

      I also write for reference books as a paid gig, so there’s no small portion of me that believes that, as a professional writer, my work is worth money. :)

  2. Delphine

    That’s a great, deep, post, Andrea.
    It makes me wonder why, actually, I’m not contributing to Wikipedia. And I’m not sure, really. Of course, there’s the time factor. But you’re right: that’s not enough to explain it. So… I might reconsider my position, thanks to you.

  3. Ouch, that one stung. Wonder if I can beef up the Wikipedia articles on the areas of my expertise if I cut back on Facebook time? Worth a try! I can’t blame either lack of technical expertise or knowledge, allthough I DO have a kid with special needs.

    I too, worry about the bias, KBC, and not just the gender bias. Colour is another one, socioeconomic backgrounds a third, and then geography…However, I would like to know whether India makes a little bump in the stats (of the English Wikipedia). It’s has a sizable population of computer savvy potential comtributors fluent in English. It would also be interesting to know which role ‘minority Wikipedias’ play in minority cultures, e.g. the Sami (formerly known as Lapps) of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. I am assuming the stats you cite is for the English Wikipedia?

    http://se.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_BlackSheeps

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