“The average Wikipedia editor is a well-educated white male. Well-educated white males have been writing history and the story of the world since ancient times”
Wikipedia has been a turning point in how we collect our knowledge in the 21st century since it was launched in 2001. It was not only an improvement on how we collect our knowledge but also on how we do so collectively. In the dawn on the internet, where we were just about to share almost every picture and activity that humanity did we had just established a platform for sharing all our knowledge, any piece of information that anyone had available was welcome and collectively edited to make it better and more informative.
As an innovative project it could be expected for Wikipedia to not only change the perception of how we share knowledge but also, as a collective humanity wide project, it could have been expected that it would also change the perception of who can share the knowledge. However, unfortunately 15 years after its launch Wikipedia is still a reflection of all the gender-biases and gender based discrimination that is present in every day life and in the realms of how we have collected and created knowledge for the past centuries.
However, what is notable and earns Wikipedia credit, is that The Wikimedia Foundation, the organisation responsible for all Wikipedia related projects, has openly admitted to having this issue and is working towards a solution. If the numbers on Wikipedia shift, could the numbers in the real world and in history shift from making women invisible and unimportant to accept them as equals in the development of our world?
Where are the women?
In a 2011 survey conducted by The Wikimedia Foundation known as the “Editor’s survey” it was established that only 9% of editors where female, however the report also found that those editors did not find Wikipedia to be an environment in which they felt harassed or sexualised. What is notable however is that in 2014 another study also found that there is a gap in the skills that editors have. It is, perhaps another reflection of society, clear that there is a bigger gender-gap among editors with a higher education background than there is among editors that participate casually and might not haven any higher education. It seems that Wikipedia remains a reflection of our already antiquated perception that women cannot participate in the building and discovering of knowledge.
Why is there a gender-gap in an open and collective environment?
Several people have spoken openly about the reasons why Wikipedia is facing this problem. It is firstly important to note that in the environment of Wikipedia it is easy for people to remain anonymous and therefore their gender is not disclosed. Sara Stierch, a Wikimedia Foundation research fellow and Wikipedia editor, said that is common for women not to disclose their gender when editing Wikipedia and than even she used to not make it clear if people didn’t pick up on her gender. It is important to note that the fact that women would rather remain anonymous and remain gender-less in an environment that is supposed to be open and embrace all human knowledge, the fact that some users might not feel comfortable with disclosing their gender is a clear indication of an environment that is clearly failing at being open.
Several reasons have been put forward to explain the gender-gap on Wikipedia such as a hostile environment that tolerates violent and threatening language, but perhaps the most clear and detailed list of reasons was put together by Sue Gardner with the information gathered from the editors themselves:
- A lack of user-friendliness in the editing interface
- Not having enough free time
- A lack of self-confidence
- Aversion to conflict and an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars
- Belief that their contributions will be reverted or deleted
- Some find its overall atmosphere misogynistic
- Wikipedia culture is sexual in ways they find off-putting
- Being addressed as male is off-putting to women whose primary language has grammatical gender
- Fewer opportunities than other sites for social relationships and a welcoming tone
From this list it is made clear that Wikipedia has a bigger problem with its own users and their behaviour on the platform rather than the platform itself. It is perhaps another indication of how Wikipedia reflects the social structures and the environment of traditional knowledge gathering and higher education.
The environment on Wikipedia is created and curated but its own users and editors. It is the editors that generate, edit and moderate the articles published on Wikipedia therefore it is also them that create and environment that might be hostile and unwelcoming to women.
As pointed out in the list women might want to choose different and more welcoming platforms in order to spend their time differently, however women might also feel more encouraged to participate in Wikipedia if the platform were to evolve into being an environment that rather than creating an atmosphere of conflict would stay true to its original believes of openness and welcoming of knowledge, be it from a woman or a man.
How to get more women to edit Wikipedia?
‘Women see technology more as a tool they use to accomplish tasks, rather than something fun in itself.’
Having acknowledged its problem Wikipedia has been making efforts of increasing it’s female population very actively. Sue Gardener, while she was still a Wikimedia Foundation executive, spoke out and worked actively towards addressing and closing this gender-gap however it still has not been solved.
As a collective Wikipedia and its co-founder Jimmy Wales have spoken out openly about trying to solve this issue and be more inclusive for women. One of the main projects are edit-a-thons organised specifically to enrich topics of Wikipedia that lack in female participation. Mentorship programme that support female editors and encourage their technology skills in participating are also supported by the Wikimedia Foundation.
Another notable project from the Wikimedia Foundation working towards the inclusion and easier access to Wikipedia editing for women is the VisualEditor which makes the editing more visual and easy-access rather than code based. However this brought up an uproar from the editors themselves that rather than embracing a new way of editing revolted against it, however Wikimedia Foundation imposed the use of the VisualEditor in order to address their own problems in development.
Some other projects such as Systers and the Wikipedia Teahouse encourage women in improving their general technological skills as well as focusing on their participation in editing Wikipedia. Certain female Wikipedia editors have also spoke out about how women could participate in Wikipedia by giving tips and feedback on how to overcome the hostile environment.
Where exactly is the issue?
In order to illustrate the point more clearly, and just as the Visual Editor attempts to make editing more clear and visual, I want to outline two cases in which Wikipedia was biased in terms of female-interest subjects as well as female edited articles.
The first one was pointed out by Amanda Filipacchi in 2013 when she wrote about the problem with the list of American novelists on Wikipedia. It was brought to the publics attention that on the list of American Novelists changes were happening. Suddenly women were being shifted to a separate list titled “American Women Novelists”. The reason for this, given at the top of the page, was that the list of “American Novelists was too long, and therefore the novelists have to be put in subcategories whenever possible. However at the time of the changes being implemented, the only page generated to address the extensive of the American Novelists page was the American Women Novelists, there was no mention of an American Male Novelists.
This sparked outrage for several reasons. Even though it is understandable that Wikipedia might have wanted to reduce the contents of the general page there is no reason for there to only be a category for women. The main issue with this was that it seemed as male American novelists would still be generally known as simply novelists, however women were pointed out as female, their merit on being novelists was only a subdivision of the fact that they were female.
Since then however the American Novelists page has evolved into a general category page with a list of subdivisions of American Male Novelists, American Female Novelist, American genderqueer novelist and other subdivisions organised by centuries, ethnicity and genre. But the question of why the general subsections for American Novelists were not created straight away in order to address the extensiveness of the general category page still remains.
Another controversy around the Wikipedia gender-bias emerged around the page generated on the subject of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. On the day of the wedding the page was proposed for deletion and regarded as not significant enough to remain on Wikipedia. However as Jimmy Wales, co-founder, pointed out at the opening session of 2012 Wikimania in Washington DC, there are over 100 articles on different Linux distribution which even thought to some users might be relevant, to some might seem trivial or even obscure and unnecessary however they remain untouched. Several users responded negatively claiming that the topic was irrelevant and mocked the consideration of not removing the page severely. This is not only the sort of attitude that puts women off editing Wikipedia but it also illustrates clearly the status quo on Wikipedia that rather than an inclusive of a variety of topics is exclusive to tech and science oriented subjects therefore at his of becoming a simple forum for so-called ‘nerds’ to discuss Linux.
Another examples to point out might be the one that Sue Gardner herself pointed to. When she had just started editing Wikipedia she discovered that the article of Pat Barker, one of her favourite authors who is an acclaimed novelist, was only a couple paragraphs. At the same time the page for Niko Bellic, a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, was five times as long.
White-privileged man club?
As a community Wikipedia has the best interest of knowledge at heart, as it has developed enormously over the past 15 years establishing itself as a go-to page for information on the Internet. However, since it emerged from the need of humanity to collect and share knowledge it unfortunately shares attitudes and problems with the higher education, technology and knowledge communities. It seems that the white-man privilege club has extended itself into a community that aims at being inclusive and respectful.
The problem therefore lies not only within Wikipedia but also within how we build and collect knowledge as a whole. The fact that women are still a minority in technology fields, they held a mere 26% of computing jobs in the US in 2013, contributes to the constant bias and reluctancy to include and accept women as equal.
However the fact that the problem is industry wide, rather than case specific to Wikipedia, doesn’t mean that Wikipedia couldn’t be a pioneer in the change. The fact that the Wikimedia Foundation has accepted its fails is in itself a big step forward in a world where even people in power refuse to acknowledge and fight gender-biases, means that that is in itself a small step forward. The acknowledgement of that fact has brought up actions and projects that constantly strive to improve the inclusion of women.
Therefore even if not much has changed in the last 15 years of Wikipedia, it is no reason to not believe that the fact that the community – or at least part of it – in striving for change and improvement might actually become an example for others to follow in how to include and appeal to both men and women.
This research piece was inspired by the experience of writing Women Can Edit!