Gender disparities apparent on free encyclopedia
// Evelyn Cranston

How much does an ocean sunfish weigh? When was Marie Curie born? How much fun is the hyperlink Hitler game? Wikipedia is the first search result to show up on the most random topics. No matter how minor, if anyone has given a thought to a certain topic before, there’s likely a stub to prove it. While some teachers abhor the use of such an unreliable, open-edited source, others embrace Wikipedia for its reliability in fast-paced subjects.

While the Encyclopaedia Britannia would likely be more accurate in, for example, details of WWI, Wikipedia trumps out-dated print books in rapidly changing fields, such as neuroscience and digital technology. A study in the peer-reviewed journal Nature states, “Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries.”

One of the best things about Wikipedia is that it draws on the collective knowledge of everyone, ranging from those with a slight interest to those who have dedicated their lives to exploring a certain topic. Anyone is free to modify entries to ensure they’re up to date, accurate, and well thought-out. With this wide open opportunity, however, there are inevitable flaws and a denigration of article quality if someone unqualified or biased chops up an article.

On the surface, Wikipedia seems like an equal, level playing field. Absolutely anyone can edit an article if they choose to, and the information is free and accessible to everyone. However, the reality plays out much differently. The Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s non-profit owner and operator, examined the statistics of contributors and editors in a 2009 study. Out of hundreds of thousands of editors and writers, and out of billions who have knowledge to share, just a slim 13% of contributors are female. Wikipedia, our holistic, online, go-to source of information is supposed to reflect the world views and findings of the people most qualified to speak on certain issues. Instead, we’re hearing mainly from formally educated men in their mid-20s. Expert in gender disparities in technology, Sue Gardner, states, “I think that all forms of diversity–geographic, political, ideological, cultural, sexual, age-related, etc.–are important. But having said that, I do think our [Wikipedia’s] gender skew is particularly bad.”

This gender disparity is reflected in the articles. Rather than just being inclusive for the sake of political correctness, having more female Wikipedia contributors would improve the site. In a list of notable scientist biographies, 19 out of the 22 featured people were male. The second longest article on Wikipedia is stereotypically male-oriented: a comprehensive list of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition monsters. The New York Times points to an example where friendship bracelets, a pastime enjoyed primarily by young girls, gets a measly four paragraphs, while toy soldiers and baseball cards are given a thorough examination.

From the origins of tech-geek culture, men have dominated. They outnumbered women in video game design and computer technology for ten years, and only now is the field levelling out. Wikipedia hasn’t kept pace with these industries.
Gardner states, “It stems from the way things started in the early days. Wikipedia has been around for ten years. When it started, the sorts of people who were actively contributing on the internet were STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) people. It was super, super geeky, because contributing anything to the internet was hard back then.”

Gardner notes that women have less free time than men, given the ‘second shift’ of housework and child-raising. When women do have free time, studies have shown that they tend to engage in activities that will directly benefit society, such as volunteering, and they gravitate towards interpersonal, social experiences. By emphasizing that working on Wikipedia does improve the well-being of society, Gardner believes we can start shrinking the gender disparity.

Another factor in the gap may be the user-unfriendly interface and hostile online environment of Wikipedia. Because women have shown to be more inclined to social activities, they will generally spend more time on social networking sites connecting with friends, rather than debating accuracies of articles with strangers. Gardner notes that Wikipedia is working on getting rid of the tedious, confusing wiki-syntax that a contributor must learn, and making it a more inclusive, friendly, and supportive environment.

Men have the tendency to put themselves forward and self-nominate when it comes to wiki-editing, whereas women shy away. Wikipedians have found that by asking university professors in India, the USA, Germany, and Canada to assign wiki writing as projects to their students, the gender gap shrunk drastically because women are not underrepresented in these post-secondary schools. Gardner is optimistic about an equalized future for Wikipedia, and emphasizes the company’s success in outreach so far.

Wikipedia is one of the most powerful connecting forces on the internet. It should be a sharing of collective knowledge, reflecting the diversity of opinions, worldviews, and scientific findings that exist. Instead, we have thousands of articles written by a similar voice, reflecting a small fraction of the earth’s population.

// Evelyn Cranston
Staff Writer

// Artwork by Sarah Vitet

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