Wikipedia's a Sausage Fest, Study Says

By Veronique Greenwood | August 12, 2011 2:23 pm


Compare the extremely detailed history of baseball cards and the somewhat skeletal entry on interior decorating on Wikipedia, the Font of All Knowledge, and you’ll get a sense of what a recent paper by computer scientists concluded: Wikipedia’s primarily a creation of man, not of woman.

After a NYTimes trend piece anecdotally discussed the disparity in January, citing Wikipedia’s male-heavy geek culture roots as the source, this intrepid bunch decided to actually do the numbers, pulling the data on editors’ gender from their profile information. And indeed, of the editors who joined in 2009 and disclosed gender, only about 16% were female, and they made only 9% of the cohort’s edits. Looking at signups over time, the researchers also saw that Wikipedia’s gender gap isn’t closing, in contrast to many social media sites, where women are now more likely to participate than men. This may be because Wikipedia looks like a slightly chilly place for new female users: self-identified women were more likely to get their early edits reverted than men were.

It’s neat that we now have real numbers in the discussion of Wikipedia’s gender politics. But there are few problems with a study voluntarily disclosed information: if you’re a woman, and you’ve already begun to suspect that Wikipedia is primarily a man’s operation, why would you state your gender at all? The vast majority of editors don’t volunteer that, preferring perhaps to have their work judged by the community without having gender on the table, and one has to wonder if those who declared might not be the sort who spent a lot of time on Wikipedia in the first place.

Maybe new editors might take some time to peruse this surprisingly comprehensive entry as they contemplate joining the grilling party.

Image: Stefano A / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
  • Amanda

    I’ve done some wikipedia editing (info on my hometown, beefed up some articles on bacteria I studied in college), and never disclosed my sex or gender. 1 anecdota data point for the win!

  • Jenn

    I agree with the thought that women may hide their gender. Being a woman is a really tough thing on the internet, especially in gaming. When I was a teen on the internet in the 90s, I quickly discovered that introducing myself as a 20-something male meant I could have meaningful conversations. I’d like to think the times have changed, but I think I just hang out with more mature people now. Gender statistics on the internet is straight up impossible.

    The idea of certain topics being primarily “for men” is also completely out of date. Those of us women who happen to be interested in doing something like contributing to wikipedia may shockingly also be interested in “nerdy” things, along with other things historically deemed to be “manly” by people who want their world to have a certain kind of order. Wiki by nature is a nerdy thing. Does your run of the mill interior decorator even KNOW that he/she can edit wikipedia? Do they even USE wikipedia?

    If anything, what pages get the most edits can only tell us what computer-literate people are interested in, and not much else.

  • Tom Morris

    So, the information used to determine female editor numbers is basically a correlation between two data points: there’s self-disclosure (you can set a gender – male, female, unspecified) in the ‘My preferences’ section if you have a registered account on Wikipedia, but also there are anonymous editor surveys conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation and by independent academics.

    If you piece together self-disclosure with anonymous survey information over a number of years, I’d say it isn’t just hunch or anecdote, the data is pretty strong – perhaps it is a few percentage points higher because some women don’t self-disclose or take the editor survey, but the potential range of error on this data really isn’t wide enough to say that even with the most optimistic count, it is still a long way off good.

    The Foundation have set a very modest goal of increasing female editors over the next five years from the 13-15% range up to 25%. If they get 20-22%, I’d say that’s success. But it isn’t just about women: that’s the thing which hits the headlines but there are other things. Increasing female participation is just one measure of increasing non-geek participation and participation from people in the developing world (or the ‘Global South’ as they keep referring to it, not necessarily to the satisfaction of people from those countries) – primarily Brazil, India and Africa.

    (Disclosure: I write for Signpost, Wikipedia’s weekly community newsletter and we cover this stuff with the same obsession some have for baseball cards.)

  • Renton

    The proven and ever-expanding universality of Wikipedia has plenty of room not only for women but for anyone at all who has an internet connection, can type on a keyboard or can talk into a mike. Any present-day imbalance is entirely temporary and will resolve itself to everyone’s satisfaction in the course of time. There are just no barriers to Wikipedia except those that for whatever reason may be self-imposed. Whatever (to me, at least) illusion of nerdiness Wikipedia may generate in some people’s minds simply won’t last for long. Yes, it may well be difficult for an ever smaller percentage of people to comprehend what it means to encounter a practically and potentially infinite research tool in which absolutely everyone may participate (like the web itself). But that’s only to be expected. Nothing of the sort has ever even been contemplated before, outside of Borges. Wikipedia is young. Before it reaches middle age (though of course it will be eternal) issues like those raised in this piece will have vanished forever.

  • Lorena

    so baseball cards are for men and interior decorating is for women?? 😉 there is your answer…….

  • Sarah Stierch

    +1 Lorena. As someone active in examining the gender gap in Wikipedia, and as a long time Wikipedian – I understand that “women themed topics” – such as biographies, films, sewing, whatever – might not have as much coverage as “male topics” (i.e. male artists, male dominated sports) – but I get sick and tired of people assuming women just want to edit articles about knitting, interior design and make up!

    I edit articles about artists, artworks and historical figures. I’ve never even touched an article about sewing or shoes 😉

  •!/piperjklemm Piper

    WikiWomen: “I believe that more women would be involved in editing Wikipedia if it were a social activity, rather than an insular one, so I hosted a WikiWomen party at my house to make the experience collaborative.”


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