Wikipedia and the Gender Imbalance

On January 31st, Noam Cohen published an article in the New York Times highlighting the gender gap in Wikipedia’s contributor list, sparking heated debate across a myriad of news sources.

In just ten years, Wikipedia has become what many consider to be the most democratic, accessible information resource available. Indeed, anyone with internet access can go to Wikipedia to add their two cents on any given topic, regardless of their individual identity and experience. Yet statistics reveal that despite this egalitarian model, the information provided on Wikipedia derives from a fairly homogenous sector of the world’s population: one that is overwhelmingly male.

Last year, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, released a survey showing that just 13-percent of Wikipedia’s contributors were female. These striking statistics beg the question: What do you do when a website founded on the values of freedom and openness turns out to be heavily tilted toward the male population?

If you’re executive director Sue Gardner, you respond by launching new efforts to raise the percentage of female contributors to 25-percent by the year 2015. But Gardner’s initiative is not driven by a desire to expand the website’s diversity.

In an interview with Cohen, Gardener said this effort is aimed at improving Wikipedia’s content. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be. Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” she said. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”

Indeed, the gender disparity is most apparent in terms of emphasis. According to Cohen’s article, those topics generally considered to be female-oriented, such as fashion or feminism, are often supplied with less information than gender neutral, or male-favored topics.

What does all this mean for Wikipedia users? Although Wikipedia turned a mere 10 years old this January, it has become a staple information source, especially among college students. Despite professor’s pleas to avoid a website they view as unreliable, many college students barely remember the internet prior its arrival, and do not care to. Accessibility is the key- if you come across an unfamiliar theory, movement, or a name, more often than not explanation is just a few clicks away.

If the gender gap is influencing what kind of information is most readily available, users of Wikipedia have very good reason to be concerned. The fact that the majority of the information available on the site derives from such a small sector of the population is troublesome, because it means most the population is not weighing in. As those of us here at the OpEd Project know, without those voices, you can never have the complete story.

So how to encourage those of us who are a little more time-crunched, and a little less tech-savvy to contribute? According to Cohen, Ms. Gardner said that for now she was “trying to use subtle persuasion and outreach through her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies like recruitment or quotas.” But in the face of such a large gender gap, it seems Gardner may have to take some more drastic measures in order to see change.

For those of you out there who use Wikipedia once a day, use this opportunity to contribute to a page or two!

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3 comments

  1. I’ve heard from an incredible number of women in the past few days that they have given up contributing because their entries are deleted for being “insignificant.”

    How’s them apples? Can’t really be more dismissive than that.

  2. How can they tell? There’s nothing in my wikipedia profile that says me gender, someone would have to go to my university web page. I found the stereotypes in that NYTimes article pretty offensive – women aren’t fact-loving???

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