Giving Definition to Wikipedia’s Gender Gap

Closing Gender Gap Can Open New Dialogues

Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, recently told NPR’s “On the Media” (a wonderful show) that, “87 percent of Wikipedia editors are male, and so topics that would associate or correlate with being female are certainly less well covered than topics that correlate with being interesting to men.” This percentage came from a study by a joint center of the United Nations University (Tokyo) and Maastricht University (The Netherlands) that also determined that the average age of a contributor is in the mid-20s.

Gardner has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25% by 2015. Like most good diversity initiatives, the goal here is to “ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be,” Gardner told The New York Times. “The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals; they are only asked to bring what they know.”

The Times points out that this disparity shows up on obvious entries—like the summaries of “Sex in the City” episodes vs. “The Sopranos”—but we can only guess how many other entries are shortchanged. Asks the Times writer Noam Cohen: “Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in ‘The Simpsons’?”

I just took a count on the SIPA Online Marketing Forum, and since September, postings come out about 2 to 1 men. Hard to say how that works out when compared with membership as a whole—probably not too bad. If you look at subjects, a credit card merchant processors thread back in June brought three postings, all by women, whereas a blog software thread drew five responses, all men. Webinar threads seem to draw more men, with Leslie Davidson an exception. Interestingly, when a question was asked in December by a male looking for a definition of “ESP,” three of the six respondents were women. A request in September for a direct-mail printer drew six responses, all but one from women.

All very unscientific, I’m sorry to say. But there’s no doubt that any kind of forum will be better served by answers and opinions from people across the board. There might be a tendency to dismiss the Wikipedia imbalance a bit–contributors are young, answers can be a bit quirky–but realize that 42% of American adults now look to Wikipedia as a research source. Yikes.

This from the Times article: “Jane Margolis, co-author of a book on sexism in computer science, ‘Unlocking the Clubhouse,’ argues that Wikipedia is experiencing the same problems of the offline world, where women are less willing to assert their opinions in public. ‘In almost every space, who are the authorities, the politicians, writers for op-ed pages?’ said Ms. Margolis, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA.

Actually, SIPA looks good when you consider that a participation rate of about 85% to 15%, men to women, is common in what a group called the OpEd Project calls “public thought-leadership forums.” But we can do better. One suggestion came from Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of OpEd Project, who said, women need to shift the focus “away from oneself — ‘do I know enough, am I bragging?’ — and turn the focus outward, thinking about the value of your knowledge.”

What else? I can do a better job of perhaps looking beyond the first or second voice on a topic and looking for—or encouraging—a new voice. Might take a little longer, but the advantages can be substantial. SIPA has enough areas where you can contribute—the online forums, as a speaker at conferences or webinars, as a contributor to Hotline or this space, getting involved with local chapters, or at an event like the Winter Publishers Roundtable. What if that last event was 2 to 1 women this year? What an interesting dynamic that would create compared to past meetings.

So please, let’s hear from you. You no longer can say that no one ever asked.

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SIPA’s online forums can give you added gravitas
while informing so many others with your knowledge.
They are an incredible member benefit!
Where else are you going to find an immediate audience
of experts with hands-on, been-there-done-that experience?
Check them out on the SIPA Website!
(If you’re not a member,
then this alone may be a reason to join.)

Post a question or discussion point today
and then watch the traffic flow!

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