Blog Post

Wikipedia and Women

A new study conducted by Wikimedia Foundation suggests that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women.  It is based on a survey.   The results are here summarized on Mashable, The Social Media Guide,"    This article asks us to "share our thoughts" so, after this excerpt, I will share some of the morning's thoughts on gender, knowledge, Wikipedia, and contribution.

Here's their synopsis:

"Women are consummate content creators online. From technology mavens like Googles Marissa Mayer to influential mommy bloggers, and even YouTube (YouTube) stars like iJustine, females have played a significant role in shaping web trends.

Thats why were slightly surprised by a revealing study conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation. Their research found that only 13% of Wikipedia (Wikipedia) contributors are women.
According to the The Wall Street Journal, the survey took place in November of last year, with results being presented last week at a conference in Buenos Aires. A total of 53,888 respondents indicated that they were Wikipedia contributors, but only 6,814 of them were women.

The research also showed that women are less likely to read articles as well, with 31% of women and 69% of men reading entries, but not writing or editing them.

Some other interesting findings point to why respondents contribute to Wikipedia, and their educational background:

- 69% of respondents were motivated to contribute to Wikipedia to fix an error

- Nearly 73% contribute because they like the idea of sharing knowledge

- 19% of Wikipedia contributors hold Masters degrees

Were pretty shocked that the equilibrium between male and female contributors to Wikipedia is so off balance, and not exactly sure why it seems to be the case. Share your thoughts on the study in the comments."


And, now, here are some thoughts, and I'd love to open this to other comments and perhaps "Gender and New Media" can be a Forum for our year sometime.  


I was shocked by this survey at first, then remembered comparable studies of game playing.  At first, it seemed that only boys played games.  Then, when researchers looked more closely, it seemed as if boys probably outnumbered girls in games in general but, with an expanded definition of games to include various kinds of participatory social networking, suddenly there were larger numbers of girls participating and playing online.   In other forms of social media where interaction is highly important, women tend to outnumber men.  For example, women outnumber men as Facebook users in every age demographic.   (Women over 55 are the fast-growing demographic on Facebook.  Moms!  Grandmas!  Look out, teens!)

So let me turn the question around.   Why wouldn't one expect different kinds of social media to reflect gender norms given that everything else in our society does?   I think we are all over (way, way over) the silly 1990s utopic idea that new media, because it allows anonymous contribution, would be race- and gender-neutral.  Not many human beings succeed, despite effort, to be gender neutral.  Why should we magically become so online?  If you cannot even buy infant clothes for a newborn without deciding between "pink" or "blue" (just try buying a shower gift without knowing the baby's gender and you see what that newbie is up against in the gender norm colorization department), why wouldn't everything about our social and intellectual life be implicitly coded "blue" and "pink."

In addition to wanting to know who contributes Wikipedia entries, I'd want to know more about the knowledge categories of the entries on Wikipedia. I'm guessing that the taxonomy will correspond to contribution distribution as well as to use.  I haven't been able to find that and would love any citations for taxonomies of knowledge on Wikipedia.  Let's just say that a large percentage of articles are in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.  Would we assume that the contributors and readers of such entries would be more likely to be female than the population (this is U.S. based, I'm assuming) that develops interests in those areas?   I use the phrase "develops interest in" because you do not have to be a certified professional in a field to contribute to Wikipedia entries.  However, the "democratization of knowledge" does not mean that knowledge doesn't have barriers, assumptions, preferences, and selection mechanisms that, indeed, mirror the democracy that produces its knowledge.  


Here's another idea.   What counts as knowledge (and I am deeply a Foucauldian, still, in my understanding of the archive) is grounded in what a society values, what it counts as knowledge, what it formulates as "real knowledge" versus "folkloric 'wisdom'" or "magical thinking, and what it chooses to retain (archive) as valuable to the history, definition, and meaning of that society and its values.  So, if I study childrearing using experimental methods, I am an expert. If I study childrearing based on my experience, I am not an expert.  I'm probably a mom.  My knowledge does not count in the same way that T. Barry Brazelton's knowledge counts. 


Wikipedia is an encyclopedia so accuracy, evidence, and empirical reliability are key.   Wikipedia receives a disproportionate amount of negative publicity because of the "contribution" of the fools who vandalize it and occasionally insist that So-and-So died when he didn't or Lyndon Johnson is the fifth Beatle and so forth; or who wage ideological warfare on the site; or who use their ability to edit to insert the most biased kind of understanding in the guise of facts (I used to be amazed at how minor events in someone's life could take prominence in a Wikipedia entry if someone took issue with that one incident;  yes, it may be a fact but is it important?  That is harder for the amazing Wikipedia "volunteers"--the editors who look after all the entries on Wikipedia--to sort out, at least without help from those who get defamed in this way).  The point is that the form of a Wikipedia contribution is quite exacting (I teach this in my courses and require my students to contribute; they are always amazed at how hard it is and how much time it takes even when they think they "know" a subject).  But what counts as "exacting" is culturally determined.   Simply raising three or four two-year-olds is not what we count as "exacting" knowledge of a subject if the norm is an authoritative encyclopedia entry, whether Britannica or Wikipedia.


And forms and scope and subject matter are all tacitly gendered.  Since I am a relentless geek and am endlessly fascinated by just about any kind of knowledge (especially if it might involve numbers or telescopes or binoculars or microscopes, etc.), I often go to Wikipedia first.  But the barrier to really great and detailed informationon Wikipedia is often quite high, far higher than on most advice sites.  If we live in a society where only a relatively small fraction of girls study math after about the age of 12, for example, they are probably not going to go to Wikipedia first for information about a common problem. 


Informal case study.   Let's say I have an ear infection.  If it is diagnosed "glue ear," I might want to find out what that means.  I can find tons of information on that at various health sites where, I note in passing, lots of the comments are left by women, virtually all in fact.  It turns out "glue ear" is mostly experienced by the under-four set, and mothers are still (more so, sadly, most studies suggest) primary health care providers for young children in our society.  So when I read about glue ear on most health sites, I find a phrase such as "rarely in adults"  but lots about glue ear in children and then pages and pages of comments by parents, mostly female parents, about tubes in the ear, the success or failure, different methods, and so forth. Now, if I go to Wikipedia to learn about glue ear, I read a sentence like this:  "The other main function is the lateral drainage of fluids from tissues on either side of the skull. It has to be remembered that the Eustachian Tube is only the width of three to four hairs in places along its length. It also changes its anatomical and physiological appearance during the early growth period of the child. In the newborn the tube is horizontal making it more difficult to drain naturally, and the surface of the tube is 100% cartilage, with a lining of Lymphatic tissue which is an extension of the Adenoidal tissue from the back of the nose."  


Is the knowledge of glue ear as experienced by a mother taking care of her crying child and who has discovered a way to make the pain go away the same knowledge as this description of lymphatic tissue lining?   Do we contribute and read for the same reasons all the time?  Do we contribute for the same reason?  Are my reasons for contributing my maternal experientially-based knowledge to a health advisory site the same as my reasons for contributing my text-based/official/med school-learned medical knowledge to Wikipedia?


My point is that even topic-by-topic we contribute for different reasons and we read for different reasons.  And we read differently in different situations.  I read about "glue ear" differently if I have it than if I study it.  


A number is never just a number.  Analysis is the important part.   The statistical figure with which this study of Women and Wikipedia begins, notes the disproportionately high contribution of women to the Internet in general, but it does not distinguish reasons or forms of contribution.  "Women contribute more to YouTube" tells us little until we ask the "why?" question.   To beg answers from that question in a most pugnacious formulation, we could wonder:  Are more women on YouTube because of the Internet's insatiable appetite for porn and YouTube features a lot of soft porn images of women?    That "why" question is quite different, in its gender implications, from "why do fewer women than men contribute to Wikipedia entries?"


This is the beginning not the end of a discussion of gender and knowledge.   I'd love to hear what others think about this study of Wikipedia contribution and use as well as about the larger issues.






While I agree with your general argument, in fact I'm surprised by the finding that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women.  Though I don't necessarily doubt the figures (and it's true that the "military history" project, for example, is especially strong), my experience as someone who also contributes to the site doesn't suggest that it is a particularly male bastion.  Some of the encyclopedia's most well-known editors and administrators are in fact women.  I could give you a whole list of usernames, but anyone who's had even the most passin involvement in Wikipedia administration and politics will have heard of editors such as "Slim Virgin" and "Durova."

It may be (and this does of course underline your overall point) that women fit into certain niches in Wikipedia, and not others.  For instance, there is a marked cluster of women involved in the "Featured articles," not least the two people who are involved in the day-to-day manageent of the entire Featured article process.  On the other hand, I suspect that the vast majority of so-called "vandal-fighters" are male, the very ethos of that role closer to a shoot-em-up video game than to the patient revision and evaluation that characterizes the Featured article process.

If anything, then, and contra your own hunch, I suspect that it is the detail-oriented aspects of Wikipedia that most appeal to those women who are involved in the project.  But really, as you say, one would hae to undertake rather more detailed and nuanced analysis.


Yes, I'd love a more official statistical count to supplement the survey too.   Lots more to be learned here!  


Reference librarian Mikhail Koulikov sent me the following very useful email with citations to two articles that have different taxonomies of the kind of information available on Wikipedia.  I asked if I could post it as a comment and he gave me his permission to post it, so here it is: 

"Dear Prof Davidson, I recently came across one of your posts in the blogs section of, where you review the results of the recent study on the
gender make-up of Wikipedia contributors, and wonder whether any
research has been done on Wikipedia's subject coverage. Comparative
bibliometrics and database subject coverage analysis is one of my own
research areas, and there are in fact at least two articles I am aware
of that you might be interested in:

Halavais, A., & Lackaff, D. (2008). An analysis of topical coverage of
Wikipedia. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(2), 429-440.

Abstract: "Many have questioned the reliability and accuracy of
Wikipedia. Here a different issue, but one closely related: how broad
is the coverage of Wikipedia? Differences in the interests and
attention of Wikipedia's editors mean that some areas, in the
traditional sciences, for example, are better covered than others. Two
approaches to measuring this coverage are presented. The first maps
the distribution of topics on Wikipedia to the distribution of books
published. The second compares the distribution of topics in three
established, field-specific academic encyclopedias to the articles
found in Wikipedia. Unlike the top-down construction of traditional
encyclopedias, Wikipedia's topical coverage is driven by the interests
of its users, and as a result, the reliability and completeness of
Wikipedia is likely to be different depending on the subject-area of
the article."

Royal, C., & Kapila, D. (2009). What's on Wikipedia, and what's not?:
Assessing completeness of information. Social Science Computer Review,
27(1), 138-148.

Abstract: "The World Wide Web continues to grow closer to achieving
the vision of becoming the repository of all human knowledge, as
features and applications that support user-generated content become
more prevalent. Wikipedia is fast becoming an important resource for
news and information. It is an online information source that is
increasingly used as the first, and sometimes only, stop for online
encyclopedic information. Using a method employed by Tankard and Royal
to judge completeness of Web content, completeness of information on
Wikipedia is assessed. Some topics are covered more comprehensively
than others, and the predictors of these biases include recency,
importance, population, and financial wealth. Wikipedia is more a
socially produced document than a value-free information source. It
reflects the viewpoints, interests, and emphases of the people who use

Hope you will find these interesting/useful!

- Mikhail Koulikov, MLS
Reference/Research Librarian