Wikipedia Editors Are Basically All Dudes – Should That Matter?By: Drew Bowling - April 30, 2012
Wikipedia have released the results of their second editor survey and, much like the original one from April 2011, the vast majority of Wikipedia editors are still men.
After concluding data collection in December 2011 from over 6,500 respondents, the site found that a towering 90% of editors on the open-source encyclopedia site are men, with a small slice, 9%, occupied by women and an even smaller 1% who identify as transsexual or transgender. The summary of the report composes a general demographic profile of a Wikipedia editor as male, a graduate student-level of education, familiarity with computer programming, someone who supports open source platforms, and a player of massively multiplayer online games. Additionally, the typical Wikipedia editor lives in either the United States or Europe.
In other words, the archetypal Wikipedia editor is what most people think about when they think about Western civilization.
The United States has the highest percentage of female editors among the countries included in the survey with 15%, but given that the actual U.S. population is split closer to a 50/50 share among men and women, that 15% is not that great; it’s only sounds good when the statistics of other countries’ Wikipedia editors are cited and Americans can say, “But women are only 3% in India,” or, “Brazil only has 7%.” Comparing yourself to the lowest possible figures isn’t really a great way to brag.
The only encouraging part about the second editors survey is that, according to Wikipedia’s blog entry about the results, 14% of new editors in 2011 were women, compared to 10% for 2010, 9% for 2009, and 8% for 2008.
Concern about a systemic bias infesting Wikipedia’s content due to editors being heavily skewed male (or heavily skewed in other demographic aspects, like country of origin or sexual orientation) has been the subject of debate over the past couple of years. In January 2011, the New York Times examined the gender gap prevalent on Wikipedia, citing examples of how the quality of articles could be potentially hindered when topics likely to be more sought after by women are left to be composed or edited by Wikipedia’s mostly male editor contingent.
Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs. And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on “Sex and the City” includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on “The Sopranos” includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode.
Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons”?
Over a year later since that Times piece, similar discrepancies are still apparent. The article for a fictional recurring supporting character on The Simpsons, Sideshow Bob, has nearly the same length of a page as Catharine MacKinnon, a highly influential feminist, lawyer, and scholar who’s been active in reforming laws related to pornography and gender discrimination since the 1970s. Sideshow Bob’s page is also about the same length of the page for Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Far be it from me to say that the length of content available for a subject on Wikipedia should merit its value or favor in society, but the length of an article is indicative of the amount of time spent writing it and given the detail in the Sideshow Bob Wikipedia entry, I’m concluding that more effort and time was spent writing that than the two pages I mentioned that are about real, politically important people. Additionally, the Sideshow Bob page has 72 citations; MacKinnon’s page has 29 and Marshall’s has 32.
The paucity of information available on Wikipedia about MacKinnon and Marshall is merely reflective of the fact that Sideshow Bob is what interests the site’s 90% male contributors, not historical figures who are of significance to minorities. Also, the lack of information on Wikipedia about the two is not because there is a lack of information in general about MacKinnon or Marshall. It just means that nobody cared that much to enrich the article.
The comparison of the pages recalls that anecdote people will use sometimes where they say that if civilization disappeared and then aliens excavated the remains of our planet a thousand years from now, the aliens would probably be left with the impression that idols like Elvis and iPhones were the gods we worshipped; or, at the very least, these artifacts were of vital importance to our culture due to their prominence in our lives.
Suppose this: if we actually survived long enough to be here for the first encounter of the third kind and, as an introduction to society, referred our new alien friends to Wikipedia for a little cultural primer, what will it say about our society that a fictional cartoon character has as much information (and with deeper detail) about him as some of the 20th century’s key progressive figures in the United States? Beyond western society, what does it say that Sideshow Bob has a lot more information on his page than, say, the page for the ancient Egyptian diety, Horus, whose mythology has been closely compared to Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t that be a little more important than a cartoon character that’s been around for 25 years or so?
Nobody will probably – and, really, should not – ever make the mistake of accusing Wikipedia of being perfect, but Wikipedia isn’t even close to decent with respect to diversity. A new paper recently published by a team of researchers at the Barcelona Media Foundation in Spain found that the heavy majority of contributors being male on Wikipedia is producing a very concerning slant in the site’s content. Examining the 15 largest language sites on Wikipedia, the researchers determined the top 5 most central persons from each language. Out of the 75 possible people listed, only 3 were women.
Moreover, the top 25 people on the English Wikipedia, which is the most popular language on Wikipedia, had only 2 women, and both of those were among the last 3 to appear on the list.
In the conclusion of their paper, the researchers note that “the gender gap among Wikipedia editors is a serious concern for the community.”
What’s more puzzling is that the general trend of women’s online activity throughout the internet is nowhere close to being reflected in the demographics of Wikipedia contributors. A Nielsen/McKinsey study from earlier this year showed that the majority of bloggers these days are women, so it’s not as if women just don’t have any interest in writing and publishing content on the internet.
Then again, Wikipedia’s demographic breakdown follows a similar trend observed in the greater world of newspapers, websites, and, well, life: for one reason or another, women just occupy less public space in general. In the media, the OpEd Project keeps track of the percentage of bylines written by men versus women and, for example, for the week of March 21, 2012, at the New York Times 83% of bylines were written by men; only 17% were by women. At the Washington Post, 85% of bylines were by men whereas only 15% were by women. Over at the Huffington Post, the numbers are slightly better but still skewed: 69% of the bylines were by men, 31% were by women.
The offline world is rife with deeply troubling gender issues that have unfortunately become commonplace in our culture. That Wikipedia is mimicking the way our culture has developed in First Life shouldn’t really come as any surprise but it’s jarring nonetheless. For instance, by simply indicating their gender on a test (as opposed to remaining anonymous), girls’ tests scores drop 20%. That insidious phenomenon coincides with a general drop in self-esteem among girls in their adolescent years. If women’s hesitation and diminished self-confidence exists in the offline world, anticipate that the phenomenon will be duplicated in the online world, as with what has happened on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has speculated before that one cause for Wikipedia’s contributors being almost all male is because of the site’s “tech-geek roots,” but he said that the gender gap is something that Wikipedia would like to change. It’s laudable that the website wants to address the issue but Wikipedia hasn’t really been considered a “tech-geek” site in some years now. In other words, it’s less a Wikipedia problem and more a society problem. Good luck fixing that one, Mr. Wales.
Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner has set a goal of increasing the portion of female contributors to 25% by 2015 and, should Wikipedia’s share of female contributors continue to increase at the same rate it has in the past year, that’s a feasible goal for 2015. Yet while that’s a significantly better ratio of men to women contributing to the site, it’s still far from equal portions and falls even shorter from mirroring the level of activity among women on the internet in general.
Whether the people running the size realize it or not, what Wikipedia essentially aims to do is up-end the entire pedagogy that society defaults to in regard to learned gender roles. It’s not an impossible task, but it’s a daunting task and one that, should Wales, Gardner, et al. find a way to change that, it could have implications for how we regard public space in general when it comes to welcoming participating from all genders.