by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I am a Wikipedia administrator, a volunteer position to which I was elected by community members. I am also a woman. I think that Wikipedia's lack of female editors is a problem for two main reasons.

First, Wikipedia articles about topics that are typically "women's" topics is atrocious: these articles are often tiny stubs or are missing entirely. To give a trivial example, look at the Wikipedia article on blush. It was created by a user that I believe is male (though I'm not sure). The photo accompanying the article doesn't even look to be blush at all. Based on the texture of the product and the size of the accompanying brushes, it's almost certainly lip gloss. Would a woman have put that photo up? Probably not. The article is also insubstantial and lacks footnotes. (The "references" section consists of three unhelpful links of dubious accuracy.) This is a product that most Western women use every day, yet the article is an embarrassment. Just poking through other cosmetics articles, I can find moisturizerlip linerthreading--all of similar quality. Fashion coverage is equally terrible. Look at Christian Lacroix or Hubert de Givenchy - towering figures in 20th-century fashion with biographies that are little more than recitations of random facts with no analysis or citations. Compare these with articles on "male" topics that are equally trivial: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.homebrewingXbox 360. When it comes to more serious topics, this disparity remains. Based on samples from one corpus of "important" figures, the male/female ratio of biographies missing from Wikipedia is worse than that of Encyclopedia Britannica.

To suggest that women aren't wimps and don't just edit "women's interest" articles - which many male Wikipedia editors do in discussions on this topic - is another form of sexism.

It evaluates women's contributions by whether they measure up to male expectations and interests. (Masculinity is cool, so it's great if everyone wants to participate. Femininity on the other hand.... Well, that's just unserious.) Certainly, many of the women editing Wikipedia don't precisely conform to gender stereotypes, but it is naive to think that men and women have entirely the same areas of interest.

Second, Wikipedia is increasingly the arbiter of important truths. These truths are shaped by negotiations on "talk pages," and the resulting "consensus" version will be accepted as fact (more or less) by thousands of readers passing by. For women to be absent in these negotiations means that women's perspectives are not accounted for, and that readers will be deprived of these perspectives. (And these perspectives are certainly somewhat different, considering that we live in a world where gender roles and gender inequality are a part of day-to-day life.) Would society want only men writing textbooks, or academic journals, or newspaper articles?

The problem of absent voices is not limited to the lack of participation by women. It also includes the lack of participation by those older than the Gen-Y and Gen-X crowd. It includes the lack of participation by the poor. It includes the lack of participation by those in the global south, or those who are not internet-connected. It includes the lack of participation by ethnic minorities. It includes the lack of participation by people who are not tech-savvy.

Wikipedia is beginning to try to remedy these problems by doing outreach and by simplifying the editing interface to attract a broader range of editors. Perhaps this will be enough. Wikipedia's culture, however, can at times be male-centric and insular. Thankfully, I have never been harassed (much) based on my gender. But, for example, an editor with whom I frequently collaborate used to maintain a gallery of hot chicks in bikinis as a subpage of his userpage. It was ultimately deleted after a deletion discussion, but he was totally oblivious to the fact that things like that create an environment where women do not feel welcome. I'm not sure if top-down initiatives at Wikipedia will be able to remedy the lack of female participation, considering broader issues of Wikipedia culture.

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