Women and Wikipedia

This is probably the most popular thing I’ve written all year. Prompted by the question a NYT reporter asked, “do you agree that Wikipedia’s culture is unfriendly to women?” The article is here and quotes one sentence, but I had several thoughts about this topic that the article did not reflect (and in fact most writing on the topic does not reflect) that I believe the discussion is incomplete without.


I don’t agree that Wikipedia has a culture that is unfriendly to women–if I did I wouldn’t have stuck around for long. So why aren’t more women on Wikipedia?

It’s a little odd, asking this question of the women who are currently participating; in some sense we are exactly the wrong people to ask. I remember joining in 2004 and feeling at home, that these were people a lot like me, and why hadn’t I known of it before? When I’m online I don’t think about my gender very much. I think of myself as a geek, a freedom of information advocate, a researcher, but I only think of “woman” as part of my identity when something reminds me of it; say, someone addresses me with the wrong pronoun. And then I remember: “oh yeah, I’m one of those too.”

Most of the women I know personally on the projects are a little bit unusual–at least a little bit geeky (maybe a lot), probably somewhat introverted, would rather participate in a mostly goal-directed activity than a mostly social one. (This is also true of most of the men.)

I’m not a sociologist, so I’m hesitant to make a lot of generalizations. But I’d say there is definitely a culture on Wikipedia that has its own quirks, and not everyone finds it welcoming or appealing. It’s very skeptical, and criticism and correction is
often valued more than pure social interaction. (I have to remind myself not to fall into the same patterns–that I should make an effort to let people know when I see good things happening, rather than only when I notice something going wrong.) Many people are very young and this is the first place they’ve ever had any kind of power or authority, where people have taken them seriously. Some still don’t think that interacting on Wikipedia is very serious, that it has any real effect on people. I suspect that some of the least welcoming interactions come from people who are still very new to Wikipedia themselves, who are learning the culture by trying to copy what they see others do (and especially others who seem to have a lot of experience or social capital) without knowing the reasons behind it or when it doesn’t apply. It’s a little bit argumentative–or at least, you won’t go very long without encountering something that is going to spark dispute, and it’s expected that sometimes this will happen; you have to either be able to handle conflict without taking it personally, or be able to let it go and find something else to work on. It requires a little bit of self-confidence, to be able to handle criticism well, or to contradict a total stranger when you don’t agree.

It also requires at least a bit of boldness, to think that you might have something to contribute to the encyclopedia! Maybe even more so now than years ago–before, there was still enough low-hanging fruit that a casual visitor would easily stumble across something which was obviously poorly-written or incomplete and think “I could do better than that”. It’s a lot harder now to find areas to contribute where it’s obvious your work will be useful. (Though any experienced Wikipedian can rattle off long lists.)

It seems almost disingenuous to say that the culture is not biased against women, but rather biased toward certain traits and against others–and that generally men are more likely to be in the group whose characteristics are more accepted. But it makes me genuinely angry when I read “women don’t like X because they’re Y”–am I less real because I am a woman who does like X and isn’t Y? It’s making the same mistake in reverse, just choosing a different group to dismiss. I don’t think it’s about gender in particular, and I hate to focus on gender specifically; it discounts the experience of the women involved and it makes things uncomfortable for the men involved. I think the disproportionate lack of women in the community isn’t about gender so much as it is about a culture that rewards certain traits and discourages others. And we’re not getting people who don’t have those other traits, male or female; more of the people who do fit the current culture are male. But the focus should be on becoming more open and diverse in general–becoming more inclusive to everyone, which will naturally bring in more women.

(I don’t think of the “Wikipedia community” as a monolith–it’s more like hundreds of different communities some of which overlap with each other just enough. I cringe whenever I hear “Wikipedia doesn’t think this is notable” or “Wikipedia decided to change” for a decision that was probably made by four or five people which no one else even knew about; unless it’s really one of the rare occasions where some big decision is made and there is a huge effort to inform everyone, most everything is only seen by a very small group of people.)

I think there need to be many different ways to be a part of Wikipedia–if you’re the kind of person who reads the manual first and wants minimal interaction, there should be a place for you; if you want someone to talk you through your first interactions and spend time getting to know people personally before you contribute, there should be a place for you too.

One problem with Wikipedia’s culture, like a lot of subcultures, is that it is self-reinforcing. For some groups that’s less of a problem–a purely social group can split into a lot of subgroups. For something like Wikipedia, where the goal is to reflect all of the world’s knowledge, that is a problem. Occasionally you have the experience of reading something where it’s clear that the writer doesn’t know what they don’t know; for example, they have never experienced poverty, never left the USA, never genuinely tried to consider why others hold a different political position, it’s written from a perspective that is too limited for the subject it’s trying to cover. The more insular and homogeneous Wikipedia’s community is, the more danger we have of being that limited as well, the less useful we are to everyone. The world’s knowledge isn’t only the knowledge of a single demographic group; some subject areas and some important perspectives are going to be undercovered if we rely only on what a single group is most knowledgeable about. There’s enough media in the world that represents only a very limited perspective on the world, what is and is not important–our mission is to do more than that. Being more inclusive means having access to the knowledge and skills of people whose input is not already widely available, and to share it with people who weren’t aware of it before. And we, unlike many sources using a more traditional model, do have the capability to do that; we’re not fulfilling our mission if we don’t.

The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally–trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change. How do you become more inclusive without breaking the qualities that make the project happen to begin with? (Any easy, obvious answer to this question is probably wrong.) That Wikipedia works at all is an improbable thing; that it works, for the most part, well, nearly miraculous. Wikipedia’s culture doesn’t have to be hostile or unfriendly to a group for it to be underrepresented–it merely has to be not one of the most attractive options.

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2 thoughts on “Women and Wikipedia”

  1. I think the point that a community doesn’t have to hostile, that it just has to be not one of the most attractive options is an important one. Using the word hostile, well, it makes the conversation hostile. When there is a hostile situation, it’s important to note that. When the bulk of the community is friendly but maybe not especially focused on recruiting members unlike them, that’s a different (and hopefully easier) situation to remedy.

    Thanks so much for articulating this!

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