And, as the above graph point out, that’s actually an improvement. The Internet’s foremost warehouse of knowledge and information remains largely created and maintained by men, thanks to an alarmingly high gender gap.
91 percent to 9 percent is staggering, especially considering that there are no formal entry barriers to becoming a Wikipedia editor – as Wikipedia has made clear for years, it’s the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. So, what gives? Gender gaps like that don’t exist for no reason.
Many, including the administrators of Wikipedia themselves, suspected harassment. As it turns out, that’s not as big of a problem as was feared, though it still is a problem. A large majority (78 percent) of female Wikipedia editors surveyed indicated that they “have not had any unpleasant experiences within the community.” Of the other 22 percent, “Only 7% reported receiving inappropriate messages or comments either in their userspace or elsewhere in Wikipedia,” while “just 4% of women editors in the sample said that they had been stalked online, and 5% said that someone had tried to flirt with them.” Unfortunately, the negative reactions are still more important here – they’re hallmarks of a broader problem of the Internet itself being a sometimes uncomfortable place to be for females. It’s great that the majority of women editing Wikipedia have had no bad experiences, but Wikipedia is trying to secure new female editors. That means the battle is with those perceptions of hostility on the Internet, where the negative experiences of the 22 percent in that survey loom large.
Wikipedia also revealed that female editors, on average, edit Wikipedia significantly fewer times than do their male counterparts. And, as it turns out, this might very well be a Wikipedia problem.
A Slate article revealed the presence of a topic bias – roughly put, that male skewed topics are seen as more worthy of Wikipedia than “girly” topics, like cosmetics or Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. Of course, there’s a whole slew of other gender issues swirling in that statement – many women would rightly chafe at the idea of Linux distributions or sports as being considered “male” topics, while many men are surely interested in such things as celebrity fashion.
Still, the basic idea of “girly” topics being considered too frivolous for Wikipedia is problematic, even if the nomenclature invites its own set of ugly stereotypes. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself argued for the merits of the article on Middleton’s wedding dress, which was flagged for deletion, saying that the dress could have a significant impact on the world of fashion, and thus has important historical value. Many disagreed, saying the dress wasn’t serious enough for the online encyclopedia – men and women alike.
The topic bias issue gets more serious with the story of Sarah Stierch’s Wikipedia edit-a-thon, a meeting of women Wikipedia editors to use Smithsonian records to create pages about important female historical figures. Despite being about figures profiled in the Smithsonian, some of the pages were flagged for deletion – one of which was flagged twice.
But, as the graph shows, female Wikipedia editors are on the rise, slowly but steadily. Let’s just hope the trend continues, and that future celebrity wedding dresses get kinder consideration.