Wikipedia's gender gap and the complicated reality of systemic gender bias

The question of the gender gap on Wikipedia has been percolating for several years now and “categorygate” was simply the latest eruption in a series of stories that have brought the issue to the public's attention. The most common solution offered to this problem is, of course, to recruit more women to contribute to the site. If more women were editing Wikipedia, the argument goes, there would be less sexism on the site. However, this is far from obvious, and it is worth thinking deeply about the assumptions that undergird this claim.

 

Abstract sculpture of a woman sitting and holding her head in her right hand contemplating

In this post, I want to think and write less about the need for activism in regards to the gender gap on Wikipedia, which I do believe is important, and more about the theoretical and philosophical issues that interest me as an academic feminist and a Wikipedian. There is a time and a place for the 140-word tweet or the motivating blog post. This is not it. In this post, I want to question the idea that simply recruiting more women editors to Wikipedia will solve the site’s gender problems. In essence, I want to ensure that the activism that is occurring is the most effective and thoughtful kind of activism.

 

Assumption #1: It is the responsibility of women to fix sexism on Wikipedia.


Sexism is a problem for everyone and everyone needs to combat it - it is not a problem that affects only women and it is not solely the responsibility of women to fix it. When one group is mistreated, systematically denied a voice or rights, that reflects poorly on the entire community and lessens the legitimacy of that community. Wikipedia’s systemic sexism lessens its legitimacy as a producer and organizer of knowledge, therefore it is the responsibility of every Wikipedian to combat that sexism.

 

Assumption #2: Women do not further patriarchal knowledge and power structures.

 

Recruiting more women will not necessarily ensure that sexism decreases on Wikipedia - women will not necessarily fight against sexism. Successful women in the workforce, for example, have not always made workplaces easier for other women. In a now famous move, Marisa Mayer, chief executive at Yahoo, abolished the company’s work at home option in February 2013. (Yahoo has recently announced a new generous family leave policy as a result of the outrage that erupted after its first restriction.) Neither Mayer’s own personal decision to take a two-week maternity leave nor her decisions at Yahoo have made life for women with children at Yahoo easier - it was pressure from outside the company that did. This example illustrates clearly that just because women end up in positions that allow them to enact change to oppressive structures, they will not necessary do so. Wikipedia needs to recruit women, yes, but, more importantly, it needs to recruit feminists. It is feminists - those who have thought about the problems of sexism, have strategies to deal with them, and are willing to engage in such battles, that are willing to challenge the patriarchal structures of knowledge on Wikipedia. And feminists can be of any gender.

 

Assumption #3: Women will edit underrepresented topics.

 

One reason given for recruiting more women to Wikipedia is because topics such as fashion or textile arts are in sore need of attention. The argument goes that since these are typically topics that women are interested in, if we attract more female editors, these topics will be covered. Research by Lam et. al. has suggested that men and women edit different topic areas on Wikipedia, with men more likely to edit science and engineering and women arts and humanities, so there does seem to be some support for this argument. However, this data was gathered only with those editors who self-reported their gender online; it is more likely that a contributor who falls into traditional gender roles will self-report and many female editors don't note their gender at all.


There are a variety of complicated reasons for why topics such as textile arts are not covered. Generally, such topics are undervalued by society precisely because of their traditional association with femininity. In attempting to fix the problem of incomplete coverage on the encyclopedia, Wikipedians should not reinforce gender stereotypes or undervalued labor. The solution to improving underrepresented topics should include reaching out to those communities that can help, such as sewing circles, and finding a way that makes editing Wikipedia palatable to them; whoever edits from those communities - be they men or women - should be welcomed.

 

Assumption #4: Women will make Wikipedia a nicer place.


There is an undercurrent in discussions about the gender gap on Wikipedia that women will civilize the site; women are somehow thought to be “nicer” than men and they are seen as a counterbalance to the argumentative culture that often characterizes Wikipedia. However, Lam et. al. found in their research that articles with a high number of female editors tended to be more confrontational than those edited by men. The idea that women will civilize men is an old one and permeates Western culture (think of stories such as Beauty and the Beast), but it is a myth. Rather than thinking of women as a civilizing force and perpetuating this fairy tale, Wikipedia needs to expect all of its editors to behave in a civil manner and have a lower tolerance for uncivil behavior. Editors need to develop empathy for those outside their own subject position.

 

Assumption #5: Women have free time to dedicate to Wikipedia.

 

In actively recruiting women to Wikipedia, we have to be aware of the systemic inequities in the amount of time women have available for unpaid labor. Throughout history, women have consistently done more unpaid labor, such as housework and childcare.  Currently, even when parents in the US work the same number of hours per week, for example, women often end doing the less valued work. As Lisa Wade explains, “Mothers are engaged in paid work, on average, only 21 hours a week, compared to fathers’ 37, and spend 32 hours a week on domestic work, compared to fathers’ 17.” Moreover, when wealthy women hire domestic assistance, they often hire women of color, exacerbating the class and racial divide in the US. This is not a problem isolated to the US. In every country in the world surveyed by OECD, women do more unpaid labor than men. Thus, when we are asking more women to edit, which women are we asking? What other kinds of labor are we asking them to forego? These are not insignificant questions and it is consistently been the blindness of the feminist movement in the West to ignore the plight of lower-class women and women of color.

 

Let me be clear - I think women should edit Wikipedia. I think more women should edit Wikipedia than do. Who edits the encyclopedia shapes the knowledge we are choosing to remember. What we choose to include and how we choose to write about it and illustrate are choices that everyone should be a part of, but I think we should be recruiting women with our eyes open. Recruiting more women to Wikipedia will not necessarily fix all the problems related to gender on the encyclopedia.

 

Bibliography


Lam, Shyong K.; Uduwage, Anuradha; Dong, Zhenhua; Sen, Shilad; Musicant, David R.; Terveen, Loren; Riedl, John. “WP: clubhouse? an exploration of Wikipedia’s gender imbalance.” Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration. New York: ACM, 2011. 1-10.

 

OECD. Society at a Glance 2011 - OECD Social Indicators. 2011.

 

Wade, Lisa. “Men, Women, and Housework: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” BlogHer. 13 March 2013.