Why are only 13% of Wikipedia contributors women?

And how do we change it? The New York Times reports that only 13% of the hundreds of thousands of Wikipedia contributors are women—and thankfully Wikipedia is determined to do something about it.

About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University.

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but she is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.

Her effort is not diversity for diversity’s sake, she says. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be,” Ms. Gardner said in an interview on Thursday. “The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know.”

“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.”

Of course, this gender disparity is not exactly surprising. The OpEd Project has found the same general 85-to-15 percent breakdown everywhere from the op-ed pages to the morning talk shows to the United States Congress. And yet, you would think—or at least hope—that a project like Wikipedia that is all about the egalitarian sharing of collective knowledge might not turn out to be quite so male-skewed.

The Times article generally suggests that the problem when it comes to Wikipedia is the same one that plagues the real world: women often aren’t as assertive about putting forth their views. On the other hand, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones argues that men are simply more likely to have the obsessive personalities required to spend hours writing and editing a Wikipedia post and Anna North at Jezebel thinks that a male-dominated “nerd culture” may provide a “web-specific reason” for the disparity. Meanwhile, the anti-feminist blogosphere offers the simplest explanation yet: women just don’t care and are too busy “chatting with [their] friends about all the various boyfriends drifting in and out of their lives.” Yep, that must be it!

What say you Feministing readers? Have you ever contributed to Wikipedia? Why do you think so few women do? And, most importantly, what’s the best way to change that? After all, a huge and ever-growing 42% of American adults turn to Wikipedia for information on every topic under the sun. And without the crumbs of almost half the world’s population, we’re all missing out on a pretty hefty loaf of knowledge.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/kenia/ Kenia Perez

    hmm….why do I think so few women contribute? I think it’s not knowing that they can! I *just* learned a couple weeks ago, from that OpEd Project that you mentioned, that you don’t have to be a professional journalist, employed by the newspaper, to submit an OpEd. I also just realized right now, reading this blog,, “Oh wow, I guess Wikipedia is the same. You mean I don’t have to be a Wikipedia employee to contribute?” Yeah, I had NO idea. I thought they hired people to write everything.
    And another reason: we probably assume all the information is there already, so what else is there to contribute? Whenever I look something up on Wikipedia,the information seems to be all there, and complete – short of being a full-fledged textbook on the topic, of course. I think I’ve only every found a couple pages that were incomplete…but I couldn’t contribute because, well, there’s a reason I was looking it up!

    • http://feministing.com/members/cromage/ A Viescas

      I don’t think that’s it. On the front page and elsewhere, its motto has always been “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, and although that text has shrunk over the years while the front page has grown more cluttered, I don’t think women are any more likely to miss it than men.

      (also, fewer women than men read Wikipedia; it’s just that the contribution stats are even more exaggerated)

    • http://feministing.com/members/andrewmcintosh/ Andrew McIntosh

      Any of those reasons would apply equally to men.

      My wife and I both use Wikipedia. I’ve contributed—mostly corrections (like typos, or reverting vandalism), but also a lot of information on the city I live in when the article on it was still a stub. My wife knows she can contribute because she knows I do. But she’s never made a contribution.

      Although I don’t know a whole lot of people (male or female) who actually contribute to Wikipedia. I get the feeling that there are just more male nerds than female nerds. Given how marginalized nerds are in our society, I don’t see anyone chomping at the bit to get that changed.

  • http://feministing.com/members/rw2264/ Rachel

    i’ve created two wikipedia pages (at the behest of two different bosses) but both of them happen to be women, so i feel pretty proud of that anyway.

  • http://feministing.com/members/cromage/ A Viescas

    I’ve contributed a few times, but mostly edit-fixing and source attribution.

    Frankly, I’m not surprised. There are several barriers to entry that favor males over females in the Wikipedia community. I agree with Mr. Drum’s and Ms. North’s takes on the subject. In fact, I think people underestimate just how much “obsessing” it takes to contribute to Wikipedia sometimes. You have to follow Wikipedia’s constantly-shifting rules structure, defend your article from deletion (especially if you’re starting a new one), and persist in edit wars over trivia that can last for weeks if not months.

    Another reason is that the rules structure of Wikipedia is ultimately top-down, and the founder and his top circle are male. That means that when there’s a dispute over what is properly “encyclopedic” (read: “important”), the people deciding are overwhelmingly male.

    On the plus side though, the average female contributor is younger than the average male contributor, suggesting that the gender gap is smaller among the young. As usual.

    • honeybee

      None of what you said, other then perhaps that a male or males are at the top, goes against a particular gender though. Men have to navigate through the same set of rules, worry about deletion, etc. the same as women.

      I would personally like to see a more thorough easily understandable breakdown of what the barriers are. I see alot of hinting and suggestions but not much that is concrete. Guess that’s how sexism usually plays out though.

  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I have contributed to Wikipedia but I would not again; with the rise of the deletionist control over the site, there’s no reason to feel confident that any contribution I make wouldn’t be deleted by someone influential who didn’t think it was important enough.

  • http://feministing.com/members/athenia/ athenia

    Honestly, I think encyclopedia making is a masculine coded activity. Which is easy to do because if what’s important is history—men have had the power to make history unlike women.

    But also, I find that among my guy friends–from my friends who love sports stats to my anime guys friends who will create wikis around girl-centered shows, they are “obssessed” with facts. Like, who knows the most facts wins or something.

  • http://feministing.com/members/yvonne/ yvonne

    This surprised and disappointed me. Surely on the internet, where you are anonymous (and hence potentially genderless???) there should be fewer barriers to women’s participation.

    I thought I’d do something about it, by updating a wikipedia page on an institution I’ve attended (one of the few things I have felt knowledgeable enough about to contribute to in the past). Sure enough, since I last looked (over a year ago) someone has updated the page to say that women are required to wear skirts and dresses. It’s not true, (although it may be wishful thinking on the part of some old-fashioned administrators). Still . . . I hesitated to correct it . . . because . . . because it’s already on the page . . . because I might be wrong . . . because someone more knowledgeable or influential might have written that . . .

    Hmm. Guess I just identified a few of the barriers to my own participation.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tyler/ Tyler Healey

    Might it be because women just ain’t that interested in Wikipedia? If so, what would be wrong with that? Please don’t hurt me.

    • http://feministing.com/members/kaelin/ Matt

      Your point may serve as a major if not dominant factor. Of course, the “not wanting to” part is probably shaped by social norms. It probably doesn’t help that women are discouraged from being “nerds” (and instead look pretty and be sociable and so on). It probably doesn’t help that popular history and culture is male-dominated, so women are probably less enthused about writing encyclopedia articles about it. It probably doesn’t help that graduate degree earners and disproportionately male, and many subjects call upon “expertise” from people with high-level degrees (especially in “hard science” fields that tend to be even more male-dominated). It probably doesn’t help that the status quo allocates more free time to men than to women to write said articles.

      This statistic is very compelling, but it is hard to find culpability in what Wikimedia does. People have identified examples of adverse impact, and yet I don’t see much in the way of easy answers that Wikimedia can implement.

    • http://feministing.com/members/yvonne/ yvonne

      Haha. Don’t stress, genuine questions deserve a genuine answer.

      If you conclude that ‘women just ain’t that interested in Wikipedia’, then the next question has to be, ‘why not?’ (I’ll leave wiser heads to tackle the answer to that question, but here’s a starting point: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_role#Gender_role_theory ).

      As for your second question, women frequently miss out on being seen, heard, and recognized in the way that they deserve, their expertise is often overlooked. Wikipedia makes one more example of this.

      In addition, if you believe that Wikipedia is an awesome and worthwhile project (it is!), then quote in Maya’s post nails it.
      “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.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/kaldari/ Ryan Kaldari

    If any of you do start editing Wikipedia, be sure to join WikiProject Feminism! This is where Wikipedia editors interested in feminism-related topics can discuss articles and collaborate on projects. Hope to see you there!