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Female editors growing scarce at Wikipedia

Sue Gardner in conversation with the notorious Derrick Coetzee

In 2010, Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner bemoaned the fact that only 13 percent of Wikipedia’s contributing editors were women.  She blogged about it, she chimed in on discussions on the Foundation’s mailing list, and even The New York Times reported on it, which spawned at least a dozen other news outlets mirroring the story.

Sue Gardner made it one of her top priorities to get more women writing those Wikipedia articles, setting a goal to raise their share from 13 percent to 25 percent, by the year 2015.  And the Wikimedia Foundation funded Gardner in part to complete that objective with a personal compensation package of $240,159 (in fiscal 2010).  So, it has to be very disheartening for Ms. Gardner to learn that a more recent study finds that her efforts apparently are pushing Wikipedia’s female community in the wrong direction — now, only 9 percent of Wikipedia’s editors happen to be women.

What might be causing Gardner’s important initiative to fail like this?  We spoke with a few experts to try to gain some perspective on Gardner’s challenge and her tactics.

Linda Steiner is Professor and Director of Research and Doctoral Studies at the University of Maryland’s school of Journalism.  She studies the impact of gender in news and media organizations and in reporting.  She notes:

“Wikipedia has a reputation for being a kind of wild West, attracting cowboys — with a decided preference for shoot-em-ups.  That is, the Wikipedia culture seems a masculine environment, dominated by men, especially white men, who don’t mind debate and ad hominem attacks, and who put out their views and assert that their views and their products are worthy and important. So this will alienate women who have been socialized to stick to more formal and civil discussion, who are reluctant to assert themselves and to assume that what interests or concerns them is necessarily important to others. Thus, Wikipedia has mainly white men writing articles, and they are writing primarily about things that interest white men.”

One of the “most influential women in tech” is Kaliya Hamlin, an expert consultant in the area of user-centric identity and data sharing.  She notices that “[Gardner] doesn’t say how Wikipedia is going to do any of the strategies she puts forward.”  Hamlin also has noted how her female peers have been treated as subjects in Wikipedia biographies:

“Personally seeing leading women thinkers and researchers in related fields have articles about them [in Wikipedia] attacked by the mob of editors claiming they are ‘not important enough’ (danah boyd as a key example) and the continuous flagging of articles in my field of expertise (digital identity) dissuades me from trying to get involved in editing. I don’t have time to get involved in the level of intense ‘alpha male’ discourse involved in ‘fighting’ for your edits.”

Aliza Sherman launched the first three general interest websites for women, and she’s become an author, lecturer, and women’s issues activist.  Regarding biographies of women on Wikipedia, she tells her personal story:

“I actually *do* have a bio on Wikipedia.

My own experience with it has been fraught with frustration, starting with getting it accepted — it was deleted the first time I submitted it (before I knew submitting your own profile was considered ‘bad form’).  I was ‘accused’ of being too ‘self-promotional’ by a Wikipedia editor.  The irony: I had copied the bio of Internet businessman Joi Ito to ‘get the format right’ and replaced his credentials with my own.  Yet his was allowed to remain while mine was flagged and subsequently removed.

I resubmitted my bio over a year later *identical* to the first, and it remains today although has now been edited over time by others and occasionally by me.  I have since found a colleague who is comfortable editing Wikipedia pages and call on him to help me on occasion to update and correct my listing.  My Wikipedia listing has been filled with inaccuracies from edits made by others — and since they use a citation for their ‘facts’ with a completely inaccurate biography of me in an Internet ‘encyclopedia’ based mostly on erroneous news articles from the 90s, I am unable to completely clear up the mistakes.

I can’t even begin to describe the nightmare I had trying to add a photograph to my bio.”

What Sherman probably didn’t realize is that Joi Ito was a personal donor of at least $1,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation’s 2007 fundraising drive.  Wikipedia has a long history of protecting the articles of its friends and contributors, while savaging the articles of its detractors.

One woman who had a disturbing run-in with one of Wikipedia’s elite editors is Elisa Gabbert, a writer of poetry and prose, who made the “mistake” one day of criticizing Wikipedia in her blog.  Within a day, there was a Wikipedia biography about her.  As long-time contributor to Wikipedia, Kelly Martinnotes:  the biography was “fairly clearly crafted to identify her as a search engine optimizer, a category of people that is widely regarded as evil by the people who live in wikispace. This is pretty much as close to being a hatchet job without actually waving the hatchet.”  Gabbert herself realized what was going on:

“Some wag went and created a Wikipedia page for me. A little bird told me it was Fred Bauder.

So criticizing Wikipedia in my tiny corner of the internet has somehow made me a target for the editors. Could this be why there aren’t more women in the Wikipedia community? It’s a little threatening.”

Host of the “Women Are Not Funny” radio show, Kay Ballardseemed to have figured out that Sue Gardner’s biggest problem in solving the gender gap on Wikipedia just may be Sue Gardner.  Prior to losing her battle with cancer on May 18, Ballard gave us this exclusive review of Gardner’s famous blog post:

“Gardner’s blog post is interesting indeed.  The first thing that didn’t ring true was her claiming the ‘Wikimedia / free culture / free software / Silicon Valley and the STEM world’ as ‘our space’.  That was, quite frankly, weird given her preceding statements.

But her replies to her blog’s comments were really freaky.  She went back and forth as if she couldn’t agree with herself about which position to take.

Women are more inclined than men to be pleasers.  This is a well documented observation.  But in Gardner’s case, she is answering to a Board of Directors, who may be pressuring her openly or more subtly to please everyone.  Maybe she has been discouraged to take a stand.  Maybe she is less accustomed to taking a stand — a result that could spring from her life as a woman or from her personality or nature generally.  Maybe she doesn’t know the meaning of taking a stand.  Maybe she is tired of taking a stand.”

Whatever the case, the evidence shows that ever since Sue Gardner began her crusade to bring more women editors to Wikipedia, the proportion of female editors has dropped over 30%.  Gardner was not reached for comment.


Photo credit:  Sage Ross, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license 

13 comments to Female editors growing scarce at Wikipedia

  • Hersch

    I found a subsequent blog post by Ms. Gardner, in which she elucidates nine reasons why women don’t want to edit Wikipedia. Here is my executive summary cum translation:

    1. They are not nerdy enough to enjoy using the Wiki software
    2. They are busier than men
    3,4 & 9. They are less belligerent than men and therefore ill-equipped to survive on the WP:BATTLEFIELD
    5. They are too thin-skinned to endure the inevitable reverting of their work
    6. They find Wikipedia culture to be misogynist
    7. They can’t handle the all-pervasive porn
    8. Some gibberish about grammatical gender

  • David Wainwright

    From what I have observed, the Wikipedia coding is an initial barrier for some women, but the bigger problem is Wikipedia’s Wild West atmosphere. At a certain point as an editor, you realize that Wikipedia doesn’t really enforce rules. You also realize that you spending more time protecting articles that you created from vandals and edit warriors than actually creating new articles. Most women and a lot of men don’t want to deal with Wikipedia’s harsh atmosphere.

  • Tim Davenport

    I used to do a punk rock label in the 1990s and I did pretty extensive tracking of my mailing list, which was a couple thousand people. One of the things I tracked was gender. The M:F ratio over time was an almost constant 85:15.

    Now, I don’t know if Wikipedia is 85:15 or 87:13 or 91:9, but the point is that there is a roughly similar proportion between record collectors buying my stuff and the active editor base at WP. And I was not doing misogynist NYHC dog crap, I was doing pop-punk — the least threatening form of punk. At shows the crowds were 50:50, give or take, but the record collectors of the same music were 85:15.

    I didn’t overthink it, I just accepted things for what they were. Perhaps Wikipedia should do the same thing. Fewer women write at Wikipedia because fewer women write at Wikipedia — not because they’re not “belligerent” enough to deal with WP’s often feisty backstage culture or because they are any less nerdy than men or because Wikipedia’s culture is hostile to women.

    Maybe it just is what it is.

  • metasonix

    Very good, Greg. Any fallout yet? Angry emails from Sue, etc?

  • Andreas Kolbe

    The interesting thing is that there are wikis and other sites, like Pinterest for example, that have a predominantly female user base.


    Wikimedia Commons could easily host the same sorts of images, but that is not what we see happening. The types of photographs that are the staple of a site like Pinterest – aesthetically pleasing examples of interior design, fashion design, crafts, baking, etc. – are in a stark minority on Wikimedia projects.

    It’s even reflected in the design of the Wikimedia interface. It is hard to say whether that would be a cause or an effect of the dearth of women editors, but there is at any rate a correlation. Compare the visual appeal of Pinterest to that of the Commons main page:


    It’s not as though that clunky look is dictated by the Mediawiki software. See for example a fashion wiki like wikifashion.com, with a mostly female user base:


    It’s a completely different approach. Note the social media tie-ins on wikifashion – another aspect that Wikimedia neglects. Twitter has a very healthy gender balance, but it’s a venue that Wikimedia has not effectively used to market itself.

    • Draco

      So, you are basically arguing that women prefer trite eye candy and low information density websites?

  • Metasonix, I wish that Sue Gardner would engage with me on these types of stories, but alas, ever since I caught her wiring a sweetheart, no-bid contract (http://www.examiner.com/article/wikimedia-foundation-director-admits-to-sweetheart-contract ) she has never responded to any of my few e-mail contact attempts.

  • mahamaratta

    These arguments are very sexist. Since when women supposed to be less combative than men? Why is it these ridiculous gender stereotypes are being used so freely without being called out?

    And it turns out women can’t handle coding either.

    Ridiculous and ridiculous-er.

  • KillerChihuahua

    I’m female, I code, and I edit Wikipedia – but less and less as time goes on. I think it is normal burnout for me…. but it is true that articles about men and men’s subjects have a much lower threshold for inclusion. Some men seem to think that if a subject is feminine, it is not as important. And don’t get me started about the misogynistic editors.

  • Andreas Kolbe

    KillerChihuahua, different inclusion standards for male and female interests are a topic that has come up with some regularity on the Gendergap mailing list. It’s a type of self-perpetuating situation – if borderline (fancruft etc.) articles of interest to boys and men are kept while equivalent articles of interest to women and girls are deleted, this affects incoming demographics.

    Being able to have one’s interests covered is what conveys a sense of ownership of the place. And finding a well-researched article on a niche topic makes readers who are interested in that subject feel, “There are people like me there!”

    Wikipedia has endlessly (20,000 words and more!) rambling articles on individual characters from the Transformer universe, but when it comes to subjects that are mainly of interest to women, the same depth of coverage just isn’t there.

    Just a thought – would you like to write an article about it? We are currently looking for submissions for this blog.

    • Draco

      Deleted or not being written in the first place? If deleted, that is really alarming. However, not being written in the first place is a recruitment problem.

  • KillerChihuahua

    I have thought about this, but unfortunately I lack the time to dedicate to this. Thank you for asking.

  • […] and retaining women a priority in 2010. But thanks in part to the ranks of folk like Bibby, she has failed. In 2010 about 13 percent of Wikipedia’s active editors were women. Today, it’s closer […]