On Friendship Bracelets and Ninja Turtles: Wikipedia's Gender Gap

By Patrick Morgan | January 31, 2011 12:36 pm

Compare the Wikipedia entry for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the entry for friendship bracelets, and you’ll find a disparity: the sword-swinging reptiles have garnered far more words than the school-days token of friendship. The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, sees disparities like these as the outcome of a much more serious one: only about 13 percent of Wikipedia’s hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.

This gender gap was discovered in a recent study of Wikipedia entries (pdf). The average contributor, it turns out, is a mid-twenty-something-year-old male. To begin to close the gender gap, Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner has set a goal for the company: to increase the number of female writers to 25 percent in the next four years.

As the New York Times reports:

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.”

With an estimated 53 percent of Internet-using U.S. adults reading its pages, Wikipedia is a major source of public knowledge. Some argue that the site’s gender gap overlies a deeper issue: that women tend not to publicly proclaim their opinions as often as men. Although specific initiatives to draw women contributors to the site are still being planned, the obstacles are clear. As Wikimedia board member Kat Walsh told the New York Times:

“The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally — trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change.”

Only time will tell whether Wikipedia will successfully recruit female contributors to its site, thereby narrowing the gender gap. And despite the urge to point towards article lengths as the outcome of this gap, it might also be healthy to acknowledge the danger and shortcomings in labeling articles as “male” or “female”–not every girl weaves friendship bracelets, and not every boy enjoys watching turtle fights.

One thing is certain, though: More women Wikepedia contributors would mean a more diverse website–one where formerly terse entries become more nuanced, and past untouched subjects get mentioned–creating, in short, a better and more informed Wikepedia.

Related Content:
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The Intersection: The Chicken, The Egg, The Woman In Science
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Celebrating Female Science Bloggers
Not Exactly Rocket Science: 15-Minute Writing Exercise Closes the Gender Gap in University-Level Physics

Image: flickr / Chloester

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
MORE ABOUT: gender gap, wikipedia, women
  • Katharine

    Want to know why I’m not editing Wikipedia?

    I’m busy doing science.

  • Mandy Moon

    Seems silly to compare the Wikipedia articles for friendship bracelets and TMNT. How much can one possibly say about friendship bracelets? “They’re tedious and boring to make, camp counselors have you weave them when they can’t think of anything else to do, and oh- you can make chevron patterns.” The end.

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, on the other hand, was a large and successful franchise, with multiple TV series and movies, toys, etc. Of course there’s a lot more to write about them than friendship bracelets. The disparity there isn’t because one is a “girl toy” and the other is a “boy toy”.

  • Walenty Lisek

    This is so silly and so sad to see an endorsement from the Discover blog promoting feminist lies. Nature is not egalitarian and talents are not equally distributed, fewer women contribute because fewer women will have the urge or the ability to do so. At the high end of the IQ scale, men have disproportional representation because more men have the biological underpinnings for genius. In other words, Larry Summers had the objective facts on his side.

    By bringing diversity, the feminist project will necessarily bring those with lower IQ’s and less talent into the decision making process and thus Wikipedia, or whoever else swallows the blue pill of feminism, will perform worse than they they otherwise would. Feminism enforces idiocracy through both social pressure and under law with the point of a gun.

    There is a natural aristocracy of talent among humans no matter how much the Church of Liberalism wishes it weren’t so.

  • Sieben Stern

    I normally don’t reply to posts, but Walenty got under my skin.

    What he said, if said about any minority, would land him in the hot seat. We don’t say that blacks aren’t CEO’s because they aren’t as smart as whites, that they lack IQ and drive. No, there are more factors, like education, poverty, and cronyism in the boardroom.

    More men are ‘geniuses’ because the education system has, up until recently, always favored males. It’s difficult to flourish when your teacher treats you differently based on your gender or race – it’s like a self fulfilling prophecy – they think you aren’t good enough and so don’t bother – therefore you fail.

    Even in art and painting, there were amazing female artists during the expressionist era, that to spite being equal to their male counterparts, once married, had to stop painting because that’s what society demanded.

    As for IQ being the measure of a genius – it’s just a number. It’s what you do with the smarts that counts.

    PS. The blue pill is viagra – and women don’t take that ^^

  • Marie

    I must admit that I couldn’t bring myself to read the entire article. What kind of science blogger doesn’t know that turtles are reptiles, not amphibians?

    • Patrick Morgan

      Hi Marie,
      Thanks for catching the amphibian error–that mistake unfortunately squeaked through the editing chain, and I’m sorry for that. (And really–what an embarrassing mistake to make!)

      I’ve corrected the article, thanks to you, and I hope you’ll forgive the oversight.

      –Patrick Morgan, DISCOVER Web Intern

  • Alyson

    Maybe the real gender issue here is not that more men edit Wikipedia, but that there is an assumption that women who might be inclined to edit Wikipedia pages give a rats ass about friendship bracelets.

    I dont care about fashion,or purses, or shoes. I hate shopping, and only go when I have to, and I love video games, science, philosophy, and ran track and did Judo. Maybe, just maybe, the problem is that not all women, and not really bright women in particular, care about some of the stupid things that are stereotypically “female.”

    Maybe, a lot of that is learned behavior, and not innate, and the kind of women who learn to care about friendship bracelets dont learn to care about editing Wikipedia pages.

    And to Walenty. There ARE more male geniuses. There are also more male idiots. Whats your point? Those facts say nothing about individuals. Besides, last time I checked, you didnt need to be a genius by any definition to edit or create a Wikipedia page, or even to be President of the United States. Is this thread just a platform to bolster your limp and flagging self esteem?

  • Cristin

    I don’t do a lot of editing of Wikipedia, but those few articles I have edited tend to be about science, computers, science fiction, and occasionally history. I’m sorry I don’t fit their gender stereotypes about what types of topics I’m supposed to care enough about to bother editing.

  • Alyson

    Oh, and where I do agree with Walenty is that quotas are ridiculous in areas where a group is not being locked out.

    Unless there is some evidence of systematic harassment and deletion of female authored pages, the system should be left as it is. Wikipedia is a volunteer project, and if “women” as a group are unhappy with the state of it, they can just volunteer in greater numbers and change it.

    I personally do not need more nuance and sensitivity in my Wikipedia, nor do I need more “female” topics.

  • Idlewilde

    There’s more to say about ninja turtles (which I watch) than friendship bracelets (which I don’t wear.) There’s no comparison. It’s not even the same subject. Maybe compare a girl’s show to a boy’s show, but bracelets and television are not the same category. I’m not editing wikipedia because I’m writing my stories which I hope to publish, and studying in college. I’m not afraid of stating my opinions-that’s a load of B.S.

  • Michelle

    Walenty, when women are denied education, as they have been over the centuries, you will only see only male minds prosper. Right now I can tell you that young women are excelling in the classroom and far exceeding their male peers, which is causing a lot of people worry and of course, teachers are blamed for not paying enough attention to males, whereas they used to be uniquely nurtured while women were pretty much ignored (I can remember being told that I would never marry if I followed my interest in marine biology, men don’t like smart women).
    When society (via TV, magazines, music and so on) stops stereotyping people into roles that supposedly make them more eligible and attractive, things might change more. Believe me the teenage mind is excessively prone to being influenced by “pop” culture and even smart people can buy that guff when they are under the influence of hormones.

  • Larissa

    So, I have to agree with the people who have commented on the “boy” interests vs. “girl” interests. Speaking for myself, only, I might have a degree in English, but I studied Chemistry for many years. I can program a computer. I can build websites from the ground up in HTML. I happen to like some “girly” things like knitting, cross-stitch, etc., but I read hard-core science fiction and GM Shadowrun (see role-playing in Wikipedia) and have done so for MANY years – I’m a gamer, too… My daughter always gets the “boy toy” at McDonald’s and I’ve ALWAYS thought it was stupid that they claim that – those toys are more interesting because they _d0_ something. In my life, and the lives of most of the women I know, this particularly stereotypical view really only has the purpose of being irksome, tiresome and, at worst, downright insulting. I happen to agree with Alyson – most of the females I’ve known and met over the years (and yes, I am significantly older than the average male Wikipedia poster) who fit the stereotype of “missing” information have less than no interest in anything like editing Wikipedia – they’re too busy memorizing designers and determining which shade of lip gloss goes with their shoes… Remember, please, this is strictly from my personal interactions and is NOT intended to be taken as any form of generalization – I have met many intelligent women who are concerned with looks and presentation, but they don’t tend to think that it’s a topic for serious consideration with the public as a whole – only their closest friends…

  • Katharine

    I see Walenty doesn’t know basic statistics nor the fact that correlation does not imply causation. There is actually at least one study out of Saudi Arabia where if one altered the environment to be more nurturing to girls, they actually outperformed boys in math. In addition, you ignore millennia of oppression against women and the sexist environment that’s permeated the world for centuries and you also ignore the numerous women who have earned Nobel Prizes. Your own countrywoman, Maria Sklodowska Curie, had TWO.

    In conclusion: F*ck off, you stupid Polack.

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