Wikipedia’s Efforts to Close its Gender Gap

Time magazine recently did a true-to-form story on Wikipedia, where guest editors (and our very own featured author) Jonathan Zittrain (see here too), Robert McHenry, Benjamin Mako Hill, and Mike Schroepfer assisted in writing/editing/re-writing a feature entitled Wikipedia’s “Ten Years of Inaccuracy and Remarkable Detail.” As the piece explained, Wikipedia just celebrated its 10th birthday.  The site has 17 million entries in more than 250 languages, quite a feat given that Encyclopedia Brittanica only has 120,000 and only in English.  The Time wiki-like piece notes that Wikipedia has a “diverse, international body of contributors.”

According to The New York Times, most contributors are male.  More specifically, “less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are female.”  This, in turn, has skewed the gender disparity of topics and emphasis.  Wikimedia’s executive director Sue Gardner explains that topics favored by girls such as friendship bracelets can seem short when compared with lengthy articles on something boys typically like such as toy soldiers or baseball cards.  The New York Times notes that a category with five Mexican feminist writers might not seem so impressive when compared with 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons.”

Why is this so?  Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia,” explains that Wikipedia’s early contributors shared “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.”  He notes that adopting an ideology of openess means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists.”  The demographics of Wikipedia’s editors may also stem, in part, from the tendency of women to be “less willing to assert their opinions in public.”

How Wikipedia is now, and has been, responding is worth noting.  Sue Gardner told the Times that she hopes to raise the share of women contributors through subtle persuasion and outreach to welcome newcomers to Wikipedia.  Dave Hoffman and Salil Mehra’s terrific piece Wikitruth Through Wikiorder demonstrates that the site has already fostered efforts to create a more inclusive environment.  As Hoffman and Mehra explain, Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee whose volunteer members rule on disputes and set forth concrete rules on how users should behave.  The Arbitration Committee has sanctioned users who make homophobic, ethnic, racial or gendered attacks or who stalk and harass others.  According to Hoffman and Mehra’s empirical study, in cases when either impersonation or anti-social conduct like hateful attacks occur, the Administrative Committee will ban the user in 21% of cases.  Wikipedia’s more than 1,500 administrators, in turn, enforce those rules.  Wikipedia also permits users to report impolite, uncivil, or other difficult communications with editors in its Wikiquette alerts notice board.

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5 Responses

  1. Well, not that it matters but:

    1) While Joseph Reagle is a very nice and personable guy, his material has been highly, highly, criticized as deeply flawed by e.g. people who he’s mentioned (Sanger) or former Wikipedia insiders. I know, the obvious reaction is that critics would say that in any case. However, I think enough objections have been raised to make an objectively substantive case (of course, my views of Wikipedia are known …).

    2) I think you’re misreading the implication of “Wikitruth Through Wikiorder”. The Arbitration Committee is not some sort of civility police. The disputes it gets are often highly politicized factional fighting, where “civility” is one tactic in the mix, just like it is in general politics.
    The whole thing is insanely pathological, with a strict hierarchy. Jimmy Wales is effectively allowed to personally lash out at anyone, though powerful admins can on occasion push back at him. Admins can freely be uncivil to normal users, though well-connected users can push back. Anyone may insult and personally attack Wikipedia critics, who are on the bottom of the hierarchy.
    Any marketing of Wikipedia as some sort of civility advance is at best complete nonsense, and at worse deceptive. It’s much more along the lines of dysfunctional politics where there’s certain official codes of behavior, but the selective enforcement of those codes is a repressive system itself.

  2. Dave Hoffman says:

    Hi Seth,

    Putting aside what the arbitration committee actually (functionally) does, and how it is perceived to act (different audiences having different views), do you think that they believe that wikidispute resolution is “highly politicized factional fighting” where “anyone may insult and personally attack Wikipedia critics”? I don’t — I think they are trying to police and enforce a norm, which we might shorten as “fight nicely”. Whether their unconscious biases lead them to fall short on that neutral goal is a totally different question.

  3. Dave, sorry, my comment above is a bit confusing. The part about “The whole thing is insanely pathological, with a strict hierarchy.” is meant to describe the real-world functioning of Wikipedia dynamics as a whole. The Arbitration Committee is somewhat like Wikipedia’s Supreme Court. Now, the Supreme Court justices may believe they are part of a norm, where Everyone Is Equal Before The Law. And (akin to the argument over motivations in _Bush v Gore_), one can debate if they have unconscious basis. But what I meant in part by “misreading the implication” is that it would be a bad idea to take a study of Supreme Court cases, and to use that to say they represent the way law and justice is (not should be) dispensed throughout America (even down to who gets arrested for minor drug offenses).

    Regarding whether they believe “anyone may insult and personally attack Wikipedia critics”, well, there’s been plenty of Supreme Court decisions where justices write things which indicate certain beliefs which may not correspond to reality (e.g. domestic violence, or whether poor people confronted by authorities can assert legal rights).

    By the way, this comes back to one of the most accessible criticisms of Reagle’s work, that in part it puts forth supposed norms of Wikipedia by relaying public-relations type glurge, without any consideration if it’s more honored in the breach than the observance. There’s an audience for that sort of happy-talk, just like there’s an audience for platitudes about equal-before-the-law.

  4. Lurker says:

    I’d like to note that I’ve been an ArbCom member on a non-English-speaking Wikipedia. Thus, I have been a Wikipedia insider, at least to some degree.

    In my experience, the topics brought before the Arbitration Committee fall into two categories: political fights and intra-wiki personal grudges. The first category is easy. As community members, we have rather clear idea how one should advance one’s political points. If you end up before ArbCom, you’re doing it wrong: blatant POV pushing, personal attacks, misuse of citations. This is easily resolved by banning the user in question or by using other restrictive measures. It is possible to advance one’s agenda in Wikipedia, but it should be done under guise of rhetorical neutrality, using cites and adhering to “who says” -rule.

    The intra-wiki personal disagreements are much more difficult. Usually these involve contributors who are respected in the community for the level of their writing, but suffer from blind spots. These cases are of personal nature and they don’t have an easy answer. Both sides have been impolite and as experienced Wikipedians, they are not breaking rules but misusing them. These fights, however, in my small-language Wikipedia, are not political. They are personal. Dealing with such quarrels is extremely boring and frustrating. So frustrating that I dropped out of ArbCom, voluntarily.

  5. Case in point, today. I’m not going to say the guy is right. But when one sees this stuff – repeatedly – it’s proof that “civility” is a very complicated matter in Wikipedia.


    This user is no longer active on Wikipedia.

    300,000+ edits, 68,000 articles created, 60 GAs, 10 FAs and nearly 500 DYKs. Not even a word of thanks, word of encouragement or acknowledgement that I actually exist from Mr. Jimmy Wales and his foundation. 4 years of hard work and he passes me off as a troll as casually as he would step on something on his shoe. Until Jimmy Wales and his foundation can bring themselves to thank me for the work I’ve done and start listening to valid proposals I have to develop the project and have the decency to respond by email I will no longer contribute to wikipedia and as a result the project will be missing out on a wealth of topics. Usually it is the lesser folk who drive people away from wikipedia, even gems like User:YellowMonkey who’ve been forced out. In this case it is the founder himself, Jimmy Wales, who has forced me away because he can’t accept criticism and finds it too difficult to support the editors who build the site for him with two minutes of his time. As it stands roughly 1 in 30 articles have my user name stamped upon it. I wonder how many millions of people will view this page whilst browsing and see the sort of treatment I got for writing that work and how little reward there is for contributing to wikipedia. The issue bothering me could be dealt with by email by the foundation. I suspect that neither Jimmy or any foundation member cares enough about me or content and what I can contribute to wikipedia to bother. If they are serious about content and are keen not to drive away the most prolific editors as they frequently claim in the media, then they know where they can email me.”