Wikipedia’s male bias and does it matter?

// 31 January 2011

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wikipediaeditor.jpgOnly about 13% of contributors to Wikipedia are women, while the average person adding to the crowd-sourced encyclopedia is in their mid-20s.

The New York Times has an interesting story exploring some of the implications of the demographics of Wikipedia editors, particularly in terms of the length and depth of entries:

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

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”?

And that’s without even getting into the representation of feminism on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is only as good as the expertise and knowledge of those who contribute; so of course it is essential for to have a wide diversity of people contributing.

The NYT interviewed Sue Gardner, executive director of Wikipedia, about the issue. She advocates a cautious approach, perhaps not wanting to stir up the trolls:

Ms. Gardner said that for now she was trying to use subtle persuasion and outreach through her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies like recruitment or quotas.

“Gender is a huge hot-button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it,” she said. “I am not interested in triggering those strong feelings.”

But surely Wikipedia must do something, if only to serve its own basic agenda of genuinely crowd-sourcing content (and not just from a specific in-crowd), and as an open, collaborative project. There is more to making something open-to-all than simply allowing everyone to take part in theory.

Image by quartermane, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Holly Combe // Posted 31 January 2011 at 4:08 pm

I’m still reading through the results linked in the article but I’d guess there must be quite a number of passing women who make corrections on Wikipedia without signing in (therefore revealing their ISP but not having to register). Certainly, that’s what I did before I got around to checking that I wouldn’t have to reveal my gender when I registered.

My guess is that those casual users who haven’t yet realised that registering generally reveals less personal data might also be less inclined to respond to a call from a study. (I certainly would have been.) However, I admittedly haven’t found any information regarding the selection process yet so I may be missing something here.

monxton // Posted 31 January 2011 at 10:54 pm

I agree with you, Jess, that this is a problem. But the two articles you cite are just stupid – how insulting to imply that what women care about is Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo.

I suspect that women are probably somewhat under-represented in the stats, because I would guess that many, like me, have Gender:Unspecified in their profile, but that’s not going to make too much difference to the overall numbers.

So … let’s stop moaning and instead create some articles about feminism that we’re proud of. Who’s up for it?

Cazz Blase // Posted 1 February 2011 at 12:08 pm

I did register, under a gender ambivalent name, and have done edits and created articles from scratch. A couple of things put me off continuing: 1.) The pettiness of the overall editers as regards rating the overall article on obscure points regarding referencing (stricter than the average university I might add!) 2.) having a couple of articles from scratch taken down because they were not deemed worthy 3.) Time and not being of a suitably diligent nature: It ceased to feel worthwhile in the end.

Does this answer any of the questions raised would you say?

Lindsey // Posted 1 February 2011 at 1:08 pm


They took down your articles? That kind of defeats the point of a crowd sourced knowledge project. Sadface.

Cazz Blase // Posted 1 February 2011 at 6:24 pm

They have rules about what goes up, that is, you have to prove it’s of sufficient interest. If a band is on the allmusic site, even if they aren’t anywhere else, you can put them up and it’ll stay up. If you find two obscure U.K websites for a U.K childrens author, by contrast, it’s taken down within the hour.

Kit // Posted 1 February 2011 at 8:04 pm

@Cazz, I was wondering if delete & edit wars (and general “power hungry” & pedantic attitudes I’ve seen of some folks there…) might have had an effect on representation a bit :S

Mercy // Posted 1 February 2011 at 8:16 pm

Can anyone provide a quick crib sheet for how to contribute articles for Wikipedia? I did register but being a working mother with two jobs simply don’t have time to digest and work out how to write an acceptable article (I’m a published writer so writing’s not the problem). If more women are to contribute then Wikipedia need to to make it less time-consuming to do so.

coldharbour // Posted 2 February 2011 at 12:15 am

“They have rules about what goes up, that is, you have to prove it’s of sufficient interest.”

How are you/or they meant to quantify how much interest is held in a wikipage if they’re going to pull in down after one hour? A pretty obvious arbitrary judgement.

Lindsey // Posted 2 February 2011 at 2:01 pm

That’s really crap. I’ve generally stood up for Wiki in the past but they’ve totally lost my respect.

G Wilson // Posted 2 February 2011 at 2:20 pm

“Create better articles” is problematic anyway – one would likely be singled-out as “non-neutral” and hounded off. Wikipedia is all about the in-crowd.

The deficiencies of Wikipedia for creating a reliable knowledge base are widely discussed elsewhere – but in response to this, I’d particularly note the problem of a “community” of anonymous and unverifiable individuals. Wikipedia claims articles are forged through consensus, but it’s common for “consensus” to be faked with multiple accounts. You can’t even be sure the small number of women are *women*, in an environment where people have repeatedly posed as mini-crowds of both genders:

JenniferRuth // Posted 2 February 2011 at 4:17 pm

I used to edit on Wiki a couple of years ago. Sad to say that I gave up because it was a bit of a slog to make any changes that someone else didn’t immediately edit back. Also, like Cazz, I had articles taken down because they were not “deemed worthy” – and to be honest, the definition of worthy changed with the wind.

Now, I’m not the best writer in the world and I will admit that perhaps some of the stuff I did could have been better or fixed up. However, the Wiki community can be pretty hostile and unforgiving to anyone who is just starting out. It’s not much encouragement to stick around and get better.

Steven Smith // Posted 2 February 2011 at 10:18 pm

So what you’re basically saying is that men do a lot more unpaid work than women online (and very useful work at that). Thanks for pointing this fact out.

Holly Combe // Posted 2 February 2011 at 11:37 pm

@Steven. How convenient that you’ve chosen to completely ignore the comments so far and their indication that Wikipedia may be a hostile environment for underrepresented contributors or those with underrepresented interests. Perhaps you also need to be reminded that you are commenting on a website that has been entirely staffed by (mostly female) volunteers for the ten years it has been in existence and has received thousands of unpaid contributions, mostly from women.

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