Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women? That statistic comes from a survey of Wikipedia users (whether contributing or just reading) sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation, first previewed in fall 2009 and eventually published in full in March 2010. Last week, Wikimedia executive director Susan Gardner announced plans to try raising this number to 25% by 2015. Thanks to coverage by Noam Cohen in The New York Times, the topic has dominated Interweb discussion of Wikipedia since then.
This participatory imbalance is not a new phenomenon, and hardly unique to Wikipedia. Cohen points to op-ed pages, and the same is considered to be true in their virtual equivalent, the political blogosphere. While there are some very prominent female contributors to all of the above, most surveys tend to show that men nevertheless lead these sectors.
On the other hand, as a female colleague pointed out to me, if you were to look at online forums about health care, animals, or the environment, the gender balance is likely to flip. The same is true with regard to professions; some are predominantly male or female, and many fall somewhere in between. Some combination of biological programming and social reinforcement produces a society with masculine and feminine traits. However, just because many stereotypes have a basis in reality does not mean they should be taken for granted or used as an excuse. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it right.
Among the many words expended on the topic, probably the best is by veteran Wikipedia contributor Kat Walsh; the entirety of it is worth reading, but here is the conclusion:
The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally–trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change. How do you become more inclusive without breaking the qualities that make the project happen to begin with? (Any easy, obvious answer to this question is probably wrong.) That Wikipedia works at all is an improbable thing; that it works, for the most part, well, nearly miraculous. Wikipedia’s culture doesn’t have to be hostile or unfriendly to a group for it to be underrepresented–it merely has to be not one of the most attractive options.
It so happens that “unfriendliness” has been identified as one possible reason. And it’s not that Wikipedia doesn’t have policies designed to address this issue: Wikipedia:Civility and Wikipedia:No personal attacks are core, non-negotiable site policies, augmented by further guidelines such as Wikipedia:Please do not bite the newcomers. The message is simple: Be polite to other editors, or you can be blocked. However, any experienced editor also knows that enforcement is uneven. Wikipedia is a very big place, where many editors are used to working in isolation. If someone comes along and starts behaving abusively, it can often feel like there is nowhere to turn. Even if you do know where to go for help, one actually must petition for a resolution, and this can be an unpleasant process. It’s also probably worth pointing out that this is an already issue on the presumably male-dominated website, so it is far from just women who feel this way.
Another issue worth considering is that no one actually knows for sure how many women are on the site. Anonymity on Wikipedia is guaranteed; hence the survey. But it’s trickier than that still, as I found out personally.
An early draft of the script for The State of Wikipedia video included the same detail from the survey Cohen cites. To make sure I had the details right, I sought the input of Erik Zachte, a data analyst for the Wikimedia Foundation and curator of information at the great Infodisiac website.
What he pointed out is that the survey had a significant problem with self-selection bias; more than a quarter of survey respondents came from Russia, for example. Among survey respondents, it is true somewhat less than 13% were female contributors. Slice it another way, and among contributors to the website, slightly more than 16% were female. Meanwhile, just 25% of survey-takers identified themselves as female. Therefore, the information concerning women on WIkipedia is considerably less likely to be accurate compared with men, but it still seems probable the percentage of female contributors is somewhere south of the 25% Gardner would like it to be.
The question then is what exactly she plans to do about it, and that discussion is underway now. If you want to be part of it, the Wikimedia Foundation has set up a mailing list to address the topic that is open to the public, and the Wikipedians you will find there are likely to be among the most thoughtful and welcoming. I certainly have my doubts that much will come of it, or that we’ll be able to reliably measure it. Wikipedia is a challenge to most people, from all walks of life, and any effort to artificially boost participation from any one group over the other is likely bound to meet with failure. If any solutions do arise, my guess is that will not necessarily be gender-specific.
As a final note, I find some irony in the fact that one reason put forth to explain why women don’t participate in Wikipedia is that they may not feel confident in their contributions, because on this particular topic, I don’t feel confident in my observations. Just for the record, on one hand I find that I am writing something because it’s a big topic and I don’t want to let it pass me by entirely; on the other hand, I think there is far more to be said about the subject than even a lengthy blog post can address. So I publish this now, unsure whether I’ve actually said anything worthwhile. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.