Feb 1, 2011

Is Wikipedia sexist?

The NYT has a fascinating article out on Wikipedia's gender balance:
About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University.

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but she is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.
On first blush, it's hard to know how a sexist bias would operate. The big activities where sexism has been definitively identified in the business world, viz. hiring, firing, and raises, don't exist in Wikipedia. After all, there are by definition no barriers to entry (save for internet access, and I think it's safe to say that both sexes have reasonably equal opportunity there). There's not much of a hierarchy, and higher-level users ("administrators" and the like) don't have much more power than an ordinary user.  One would be hard pressed to construct a more open system.

There is, however, a pretty representative sample of internet culture, and a population of 13% women is pretty staggering. Wikipedians (like internet denizens everywhere) tend to be aggressive, rude, and quick to cast aspersions on your intelligence or motives. Though I am a big supporter of Wikipedia, I can see how its culture might be offputting to women in general. Like any forum, you've got to have an enormous tolerance to total douchebags to get anywhere. As the article says:
But because of its early contributors Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd, says Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. This includes an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.

“It is ironic,” he said, “because I like these things — freedom, openness, egalitarian ideas — but I think to some extent they are compounding and hiding problems you might find in the real world.”

Adopting openness means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,” he said, “so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem.”
Kevin Drum has another theory:
But I suspect the reason has less to do with women having trouble asserting their opinions and more to do with the prevalence of obsessive, Aspergers-ish behavior among men. After all, why would anyone spend endless hours researching, writing and editing a Wikipedia post for free about either The Simpsons or Mexican feminist writers? I think that "having an opinion on the subject" is far too pale a description of why people do or don't do this. You need to be obsessed. You need to really care about the minutia of the subject and whether it's presented in exactly the right way. And you need to care about this in a forum with no professional prestige. You're really, truly doing it just for the sake of the thing itself.

I've long been convinced that this tendency toward obsession is one of the key differences between men and women. I don't know what causes it. I don't know if it helped primitive men kill more mastodons during the late Pleistocene. But it does seem to be real, and it doesn't seem to be something that's either culturally encouraged or discouraged in children of either gender. I just don't know. But I'll bet that an obsessive outlook on life is something that produces a lot of Wikipedia articles.
I tried for awhile to put my finger on exactly what bothered me about this idea, but one of his commenters put it better than I ever could:
Autism is sex-linked and, as Kevin says (or implies), this particular sort of obsessiveness is characteristic of autism-spectrum traits. Note that there is no evidence that OCD, in general, is sex-linked. So you're quite correct to say that women are not less obsessive than men. But there's a fair bit of evidence that men are biologically more prone to the particular sort of obsessiveness that is specific to autism-spectrum disorders.

I've been a staunch feminist for more than twenty-five years. I've watched prevailing (well, dogmatic, unfortunately) feminist opinion on cognitive/behavioral sex differences change from complete denial, to widespread acceptance (particularly among the academic feminist theorists), and now back again to complete denial. The changing opinion has less to do with developments in science than it does the need to take an intellectual position against strongly reactionary, anti-feminist intellectual trends. Lately, and contrary to the conventional feminist opinion, it's *because* science points toward such differences that the reactionary, anti-feminist contingent has seized upon this to advance anti-feminist ideas with the support of questionable science, most notably in the case of evolutionary psychology. It's perfectly understandable why feminism has taken this tack, but it's led a new generation of feminists into believing quite dogmatically that there are no cognitive/behavioral biological sex differences. Quite aside from all the reasons this is scientifically suspect (though I absolutely do not intend to minimize how confounding are all the various environmental developmental issues; and it's important emphasize that absolute answers to these kinds of questions are unlikely), this concerns me because to the degree to which there *are* such differences, it is important that we recognize them *so that* we, as feminists, and as part of a greater and hopefully just society, do whatever needs to be done to achieve social justice in that context.

Anyway, Kevin is here making exactly the same mistake that [Larry] Summers did. That is, while his hypothesis is not self-evidently false, or even outrageous, the salient question is why, given all the social factors that undoubtedly cause women to be less inclined to write Wikipedia articles, or become physicists, is it that helpful to jump right to biological determinist explanations for the disparity? When that's the first explanation someone offers, it's fair to ask if they're merely using this as an excuse for the unjust status quo.
Exactly. How to bring more women into Wikipedia—because I believe the project is well worth the time and would be thus improved—is tough to answer. Some kind of guideline for talk pages? A review board? An advertising campaign in between fundraising drives?

This might sound naive, but I think the idea with the greatest chance of success would be collective action. This case of gender bias isn't like many others, where there are restraints outside a woman's direct control. I know Wikipedia is an irritating place in many ways, but there is a lot of power there for those willing to be sufficiently obnoxious, and the more women are involved and supporting each other, the more amenable it would be for each additional woman. Wikipedia is hugely influential; its topics' page ranks are usually in the top five. I'm sensing a good campaign for some feminist organization—or am I out to lunch?


  1. Maybe whether wikipedia has an influence or power that is apparent to women from a social perspective is worth asking. Not everyone thinks wikipedia is amazing, and maybe more men think it's amazing that women. I do things when they benefit me personally (or those around me) or make the world better...I don't see wikipedia qualifying to the extent that I'm going to spend my time writing/revising/editing wiki pages. I can't put it on a CV or get a job from it, and it's an amateur encyclopaedia, not a work of art or a resemblance of god's word, so what do I care how or what exactly is written? How does it harm women to not participate in developing wikipedia?

  2. Well, I would somewhat agree with you personally. I usually only edit articles when I run across an error or typo in an article. In a narrowly selfish sense, there's really no benefit, or harm from abstention.

    But like I said, Wikipedia has tremendous influence. It is by far the most widely used reference on the internet. Google any fundamental topic, and chances are Wikipedia has the number one result. This is true of "religion," "philosophy," "culture," "war," and "god." It's also true of "sexism," "gender," "suffrage," "abortion," and "women's rights."

    The internet will only become more important in the future, and I think the fact that the community writing what is probably now (or will certainly become) the single most important reference in the world is 87% men is a crying shame. Not only are women's viewpoints probably being marginalized (I know I don't know fuck-all in that respect, and don't know many men who do), Wikipedia is losing a large portion of the most knowledgeable people in the world.

    I feel like it's similar to voting. Can you put having voted on your CV? Does it help any individual person in a measurable way? Vanishingly unlikely. But it's still the best way to set up a country.

  3. Women's viewpoints are marginalized (in that regard, I would be careful not to say women have a distinct knowledge from men, which hasn't really worked out for feminism, in my opinion, since like first-wave...) but it's a free world. I feel like you can also say the military is powerful and influential, but few people bemoan that women's viewpoints are marginalized there. On the other hand, for me personally, it doesn't make it worth my while to contribute to a penis-wagging contest that it's overall perspective might be male oriented. Maybe it will benefit those who refer to wikipedia, but that's not my problem. What about race and wikipedia? Don't you wish more blacks contributed? Doesn't all this put a burden on the people who *don't* see the value of wikipedia? Who are the most common users of wikipedia, white men, or some other group? Which part of the population thinks it is so important? Honestly I'd rather get a job at Fox News than contribute to Wikipedia, in order to make a difference in an unbalanced, influential place. I really see no value to expounding my encyclopedic knowledge of things or contributing my editing skills on wikipedia.

  4. I feel like you're sort of clouding the issue. I'm not familiar with feminist critiques of the military, but if some dilution of the macho chest-pounding culture there could help us to stop invading random defenseless countries for no reason every ten years or so, I'd definitely start up some bemoaning. But that has little or nothing to do with the issue at hand.

    Similarly with race. Offhand I'm not aware of any racial demographic studies of Wikipedia, but given internet culture generally, I'd be pretty surprised if it weren't overwhelmingly white. But again, that seems orthogonal to the female issue. These could be two great tastes that taste great together!

    And for Fox News, the reason you shouldn't join that organization is that it is a project for advancing the conservative agenda. Even if they would let you have your own show (they wouldn't), the minute you started with anything even vaguely feminist or liberal, you would be fired forthwith. Even Colmes couldn't survive as Hannity's useful idiot. Fox is unbalanced by design, and the two or three men that run the place wouldn't let you interfere. But again, I don't see what that has to do with the issue at hand.

    Look, I'm not saying that you personally should go and start editing articles 14 hours a day, and if you don't you're a bad person. I'm saying Wikipedia is hugely influential and will only become more so. There isn't a part of the population that thinks it's so important, it is so important, and I really don't see how you could quibble with that. It's not an academic journal, but hardly anyone from the general public reads those things, and they have their own pathologies besides.

    In short, the fact that there are almost no women involved in constructing the most important general reference in the world is lamentable. That's it.