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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Wikipedia and the Gender Gap

This Kat hopes that he is not about to tread on too thin a rhetorical ice. Here it goes:

I was innocently listening to a podcast interview with Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the body that runs Wikipedia. The strengths and weaknesses, the ups and downs of Wikipedia, were all forthrightly discussed. Then came the part that really grabbed attention The question was asked about the current state of the "gender gap" among Wikipedia contributors. It turns out that only between 10%-15% of its contributors are women. Gardner acknowledged this data point and noted that the imbalance between male and female contributors might have an influence on the contents that appear on Wikipedia. She expressed the hope that the imbalance would be corrected.

This exchange grabbed this Kat's attention and he set about to search for additional information about the alleged gender gap. It apparently turns out that an article by Noam Cohen that appeared in The New York Times on January 30, 2011--"Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia's Contributor List", here, gave particular impetus to the issue. The article observed that only 13% of the contributors are women. The article went on to consider various reasons for the imbalance. For example, it was suggested that because of the characteristics of the early contributors, "Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd," including "an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women." Another suggestion was that "women are less willing to assert their opinion in public."

It is beyond this Kat's pay grade to even begin to offer an explanation for the gender imbalance among Wikipedia contributors. That said, he does wonder whether it should be a matter of concern that there is such a gender gap. After all, Wikipedia is increasingly the de facto first choice for anyone who seeks information about the myriad of topics that are contained online. At the risk of hyperbole, the scope and availability of the service have made it a primary fashioner of what we treat as contents. Beyond the oft-raised question of the reliability of the contents, there should also be a concern about something more profound--a male bias to the contents?

Ms Gardner's position, set forth both in the podcast and as quoted in The New York Times article, is that the gender gap might adversely affect the ability of "the encyclopedia [to be] as good as it could be. The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know." She went to use a bit of imagery: "Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table. If they are not at the table, we don't benefit from their crumbs."

What is of particular interest to this Kat whether the issue is in the contents included on the site or something more subtle. The article itself opted for the latter, observing that "[w]ith so many subjects presented--most everything has an article on Wikipedia--the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis." For instance, it It pointed to such differences as an article on something that might interest teenage girls, such as friendship bracelets, receiving scant treatment while an entry on something for boys, such as baseball cards, enjoying much greater attention. In contrast, Ms. Gardner's comments seemed to emphasize the possible absence of contents based on gender. If our collective consciousness of what constitutes contents and knowledge is at stake, the answer to these questions is not insignificant.

Or not? For instance, this Kat does not recall any similar discussion about who determined and contributed to the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. One response is that, in retrospect, assuming that the Britannica was largely staffed by men, the same question should have been asked about it. The fact that the issue was not raised then does not affect the current relevance of the matter to Wikipedia. That the Britannica was maintained and managed by "professionals" also not change the discussion. And so we are return to the basic question: should the gender gap among the contributors of Wikipedia be a matter of concern?

[Kat team member Jeremy comments: this issue can be said to be relevant to the world's major intellectual property organisations too:  only 5 out of 15 members of the AIPPI Bureau are women, while 11 out of 25 members of the MARQUES Council are, including the chair and first vice-chair; INTA's Board 39-strong Board of Directors  is split nearly 50-50, with 19 women to 20 men. On contrast, just one of FICPI's six Bureau members is a woman, and there are two women on LES International's 11-strong Board of Directors. Would any of these organisations operate differently if the proportions were otherwise?].

9 comments:

Andy J said...

As ever Neil, thank you for a really thought-provoking piece for a Sunday morning.
I suspect (without a shread of empirical evidence) that it may have something to do with the 'geeky' nature of the Wikipedia project, which the Cohen NYT article referred to as the "hard-driving hacker crowd".
It would be interesting to compare the Wikipedia stats with the number of female contributors to the millions of 'how-to' videos to be found on YouTube. In my limited experience, very many of the videos on craft-based subjects do seem to be fronted by women. Maybe this is a reflection of the greater proportion of women who are employed (in the West at least) in sectors such as nursing, hair and beauty, shop work (store clerking) and some other service industries.
Extrapolating this a little, maybe women generally prefer to show how to do practical things rather than write about things.
But ultimately, women are a mystery to me, so how should I know?

Anonymous said...

Couldn't get much past the first couple of paragraphs of this article. If women choose not to contribute them I have no interest in starting/encouraging/paying for an organisation that will push for the 'bridging of the gender gap'. Why try to to categorise those that contribute as 'geeks' and the like?

Move along everybody. There is nothing to see here. If you have gaps in your own life that you can fill by worrying about such nonsense then go find a hole to dig and work on the problem of where to bury the soil.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous 19:39, it'd probably help if you bothered to read the whole article before commenting. (Or read it more carefully, the word geek isn't there - and isn't geekchic cool these days anyway?).

Nobody is asking *you* to do anything.

But it's clearly in Wikipedia's interest to improve the spread of info they collate, for fear of missing out on a large chunk of the population (and readership).

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I think this just reflects my experience both within a work and an academic context. Men (and I'm not having a go here. I like men. Heck, I even married one) - very generally speaking - are more inclined to want to inform/educate people around them in a way which will display the extent of their own knowledge. Women - very generally speaking - are happy just to apply their knowledge to the situation in hand, and are not that bothered about ensuring that everyone can see how knowledgeable they are. I have seen this in tutorials, seminars and business meetings time and time again. It's not a criticism - just an observation.

Anonymous said...

In general men are better (or perhaps that should be 'more interested') in the blue-sky-thinking/philosophising /concept considering side of things. That might be why they are more likely to write for Wikipedia. That is to the detriment of Wikipedia, but it's probably more important that the freeing of woman does not happen too fast, so that there's some chance they won't become too geekish/blokeish.

Anonymous said...

anon at 7:33 should read the first comment by Andy and then realise that maybe they should have waited until their second morning cup of coffee before commenting on my own post at 19:39. Or was the train a little too shaky to read you iPad clearly?

Always amused by how women may make observations whereas men simply make sexist remarks. One rule for some!

Personally, I always seek out the views of women on a point for a balanced point of view. Where Wiki seems to fail, mumsnet fills the void!

Roufousse T. Fairfly said...

I think I can recognise the paw of Herblock, the Washington Post cartoonist, in the image with caption "Cat Ice".

Am I right?

Anonymous said...

Never mind that - where are the women inventors? Surely a much greater loss to society!

Ron said...

In the mid-1990's I mentioned to a US patent attorney that I knew of more Icelandic female patent attorneys than US: the Icelandic firm I had recently dealt with had three female attorneys whereas I had never dealt with a single female US patent attorney or seen any mentioned on letterheads.

He reflected briefly and said he couldn't think of any female US patent attorneys either. I found this gender difference on opposite sides of the pond surprising, given the usual thrust for gender equality in the US. Perhaps things are different now?

When I was a student member in the early 1990's the gender mix at CIPA informals lectures was about 50:50.

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