Editing Girl Talk

There’s a problem on Wikipedia, one that I am, as a male, not entirely qualified to answer, but has nonetheless incessantly perturbed me. Women have been statistically shown to edit Wikipedia far less than their population proportion would suggest. As noted in Good Faith Collaboration by Joseph Reagle, an encyclopedia reflects it’s authorship. Naturally the question arises, what can be done about the gender gap? I contend there is a glimmer of hope in finding a solution and the first ray shone on my face from the LCD when facebook news fed me this picture.

Katie, a student of the Wikipedia Education Program in her proud post showed that something was happening correctly. That there was something cool, so edgy in fact that it was Facebook-worthy, about editing, and that the appeal wasn’t male-only. In Wikipedia terms the fight against skewed writer demographics is known as “Countering Systemic Bias,” and the Wikipedia Education Program is doing just that. The logic goes that university students, the target of the Education Program, are evenly divided or woman-heavy in terms of gender, and so having them edit as an assignment would start steering averages. Now more affirmation is being received for that hypothesis, but also important details are arising in how exactly the bias manifests itself.

Zachary McDowell’s Writing as Communication course, a participant in the Education Program under my ambassadorship of the New England Wikipedia Brains In Education (NEWBIE) region, came second on the leaderboard of text added amongst all classes. Upon investigating the work conducted in the course my eyes pricked up at some of the topics chosen. They were gender conscious and underrepresented. Zachary McDowell related to me that his students, of which 75% are female, were relishing the assignment, and that having been given the option of choosing whatever article they wanted to edit they were selecting poignant and telling subjects about gender. Immediately I tracked down some of the top female editors and interviewed them.

Daniellecomm375 and Eff Gjeni, main contributors to Sexuality in Music Videos and Gender Advertisement respectively are two top performing students of the course, and had meaningfully nonchalant answers to my questioning them. Neither of them was aware of an existing gender gap in the encyclopedia they’d been editing when we talked. Neither of them thought that they were writing about topics that were explicitly feminine, they rightly pointed out were human topics. Still, their choice of topics uncovered less explored areas in the encyclopedia, and their experience highlighted some potential male bias in Wikipedia policy.

In answering the question of why she chose her topic Daniellecomm375 pleaded write what you know. “My friends and I are always talking about things like ‘can you believe how skinny that actress is?'” she offhands in seriousness that is not distant from the gossipy nature she is describing. The presence of ideas like thinness paranoia, a common conversation for Daniellecomm375 and her friends, were skeletal at best on Wikipedia. She continues, “I wanted to make the article relatable.” And certainly to a specific demographic Sexuality in Music Videos is. Discussions of body image, the prevalence of anorexia, and misogyny are treated, and it’s hard to imagine being as committed to the dispersal of the research around it if you can’t relate to the symptoms. Daniellecomm375 was filling a vacuum she noticed.

Eff Gjeni likewise was not successful in finding issues close to her daily life. “I wanted to write about fashion first, but there weren’t many articles on it,” she laments, as an indication of existing bias. Having settled on Gender Advertising, she still disputes that the discipline is an innately female subject, “We think that it’s a problem that images in advertising show that women are supposed to be a certain way, but I wanted to talk about men in the article, it’s hard for men too.” Here she enforced that she wasn’t writing with a feminist slant, and her article indeed voices an equal, and clinical tone. It’s well put that the topics are about genders, none in specific. Still, a topic as large as Gender Advertising remaining immature into 2011 is reflective of the notion that it takes a multiplicity of authors and author backgrounds to write on the sum total of human knowledge.

An anecdote that Daniellecomm375 deconstructs for me seems to suggest that perhaps the answer has some historical moorings. “The first day of class, when I heard that we were going to edit Wikipedia articles, I can remember looking around the class and thinking [of the 25% men] the boys are going to do much better than I am.” Daniellecomm375 ranked second in the individual category of the leaderboard, so while reality being exactly opposite, where is the psychology stemming from I inquired? “I think it’s in the academic tradition, as a women you don’t feel like you’ll be taken seriously in university, so if someone knows you’re a woman on Wikipedia you think they’re also not going to take you seriously.” With an upright posture and a grim message Daniellecom375 is a statue of a regrettable matter of fact. The gender role of timidity again rises when Danielle recounts the emotional pain of an edit war she was involved in. “I asked him [presuming the warring editor is a 'him'] do you not want me to edit your article? Because if you don’t, I won’t.” To Danielle any cracked eggs are failure, not the making of an omelette. Some official principles, such as “Be Bold in editing Wikipedia,” Danielle seems to suggest are not readily part of a behavior with which she associates. It lays the underpinnings for more clashing, something that is not part of her socialization.

When I brought up the subject of hurt feelings with Eff Gjeni a diversity of opinion is shown. I ask her about the prevailing theory – extolled even by Jimmy Wales himself at the latest Wikimania – that the increase of negative bot-left warnings on user pages has brought about a harsher climate for editors. The corollary of the theory being that women, who are more consensus based decision makers, like less the impersonalized tone and algorithmic arrival of warning text. “I don’t find the messages discouraging at all,” she twists “it makes me want to correct the mistakes.” So with that golden key to the mystery evaporating I ask Eff Gjeni what she thinks can be done? She lingers wordlessly in thought for a few moments and responds, “I think that if the gender gap was advertised more, it would make women want to edit more.” The internet’s less frequently clicked destinations have been typically the haunts of a distinct clique. Simply allowing something to be moused, won’t mean it will be in equal measures by all sexes, Eff Gjeni surmises.

The Wikipedia Education Program is finding editors who were oblivious to the gender gap, and starting to mend it. Systemic bias is being countered with the likes of Daniellecomm375 and Eff Gjeni’s contributions because they have found an outlet to which they weren’t previously privy. Moreover, it is nourishing their transition from newbies to fluent editors, through it’s structure and campus ambassador support system. On whether they would continue to edit now that courses have finished, both gave a resounding “definitely.” There are subtle hints also that some long-ago agreed tenets – like Be Bold – might be borne under biased times, and to gather worthwhile feedback we will need the voices of those less represented. With the new Wikipedia reader survey statistics being collected at the moment, one question of which is “Gender:” we will be able to see if there is any trend in the gender gap. The Wikipedia Education Program may be of insignificant magnitude at the moment to move the needle, but it is a growing laboratory that is discovering potent remedies.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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