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January 31, 2011


Women and Wikipedia

Women pay gap

Wikipedia has determined that only 13% of its contributors are women. The site's usefulness depends on all kinds of people sharing knowledge about subjects they're interested in. Everybody benefits when the knowledge of a vast number of individual people is centralized in one place, and Wikipedia has done a fantastic job at collecting individual knowledge -- of guys in their mid-20's.

The Times article about the low contribution rates of women includes surprised speculation from people in media and computer studies about why this might be. I don't want to be cynical, but do these people live in the same world I live in?

Let's look at some major areas of public life:

Sensing a trend?

Of course there's a big difference between becoming a Senator or a CEO of a big company and contributing to a Wikipedia article. ANYONE can write something on Wikipedia. You still don't have to register with the site to add some verifiable facts to an existing article, and there's a help page for new contributors.

Since women's knowledge is so radically underrepresented in Wikipedia, we're all losing out. I don't know about you, but I probably look something up on Wikipedia every day. I don't want to only find what dudes are interested in up there.

Two examples in the Times article: "Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in The Simpsons?" "The entry on Sex and the City includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on The Sopranos includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode."

Sure, it's just pop culture, but this is part of what happens when women are in so few visible leadership positions. As Catherine Orenstein, founder of The OpEd Project says in the Times piece, "When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies." Fewer women in media, business, and government seems to also mean fewer women and girls sharing a bit of knowledge in an online article about TV shows, authors, historical figures, cities, bands, or artists they like and know something about.

Contributing to Wikipedia doesn't require leadership or ambition, but it does require women and girls to think, "I have something to say", and with few exceptions, that's not happening. Boys and men obviously think they have plenty to say, and they're already saying it awfully loudly and in painstaking detail. Ladies: please speak up, I can't hear you.

In thinking about the small numbers of women in leadership positions in business, I realized that at every single job I've had since college, the person at the top has been a woman. This now seems incredibly statistically improbable, and I feel really lucky.

[Note: a reader points out that Wikipedia is intended to be a repository of known facts, not personal analysis or research, as described in the No Original Research entry. My point remains that contributors reflect their own personal interests by adding facts to an entry, making the whole of Wikipedia a sum total of the interests of its contributors, so if those contributors are 87% dudes, well, you get a lot of stuff about Matchbox cars and Civil War Reenactments.]

categories: Business, Gender, Media, Movies, Politics, Women, Work
posted by amy at 12:21 PM | #

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The Mexican feminists comparison is pretty off-base---The Simpsons has an audience in the millions, and Mexican feminist novelists have an audience in the thousands, and the number of people who consider themselves semi-expert in the field is even smaller. But SATC is a good one.

Part of the difference, I think, is the curiously gendered Asbergers required to write for Wikipedia. I suspect women are less likely to write for Wikipedia for the same reason women aren't as likely to collect stamps, or recite train timetables, or post the definitive guide to skiffle 45s. Loudly displaying expertise with no professional or financial renumeration just doesn't seem as appealing to women.

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastard at January 31, 2011 2:53 PM

Yeah, comparing an entry on Mexican feminist lit to entries about The Simpsons was a weird choice on the author's part. I couldn't put two facts together about Mexican feminist art or literature, but would gladly enumerate dozens of pop culture references in particular Simpsons episodes, or add to the probably long list of examples of Homer's barely submerged attraction to both Ned and Maude Flanders.

According to my sophomore year Postmodern Lit class, Don DeLillo's White Noise uses the male obsession with obscure expertise as a theme, and sort of makes fun of it (Hitler Studies, car crash seminars, etc.) Skiffle 45s. Heh. Exactly.

Other than the biological tendency of people with Asperger's to be men, I don't know why the desire to accumulate factual minutiae is more associated with men than women--it's gotta be a social construction/expectation, right? I'm not sure if that assumption is even true--maybe men and women just become obsessively knowledgeable about different subjects. Sports stats vs. knowing which designer made that pair of shoes, as one very stereotypical example.

Posted by: amy at January 31, 2011 3:05 PM

I think most women just have better things to do...

Posted by: Marcy at January 31, 2011 3:39 PM

It probably is a social construction, but I wonder. Biologically men are more prone to autism, because the Y chromosome is less stable (men are more prone to most genetic defects, really), and it's possible that this is minor autism-spectrum disorder. In general, though, women seem way less interested in useless knowledge---even the shoe-designer example involves knowledge that may conceivably be of some use in daily life in a way that knowing every session guitarist on Elvis records isn't.

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastard at January 31, 2011 3:42 PM

OK, OK, I'll admit it, women might just not be as into the impractical accumulation of information as men are. If you insist!

Marcy: I'm assuming by that you mean that women are making 83 cents on the male dollar, doing a sizable majority of the housework and childcare, and also earning most of the medical degrees in our country, so where's the time for fleshing out the Wikipedia page on Ally McBeal? Can't argue with that.

Posted by: amy at January 31, 2011 9:25 PM

Heh---well, it may well be social! In fact, like most things, it's probably some complicated relationship of social and biological elements. But I think Marcy's comment actually illustrates what's going on---there's a base assumption that updating Wikipedia articles is not a good use of a woman's time. Perhaps because it's so solitary?

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastard at January 31, 2011 10:11 PM

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