What Makes Wikipedia Special?

by Conor Friedersdorf

I've got a question about Wikipedia and the concern expressed in so many places that only 13 percent of its contributors are women: what factors determine when a gender disparity is something about which we should care? Is it a bad thing that there are so few women cab drivers? Or sanitation workers? Or floor traders on Wall Street? Or peanut vendors at baseball stadiums? Or corporate CEOs? Or congressional canidates? Or beer pong players? Or talk radio hosts? Or authors of economics textbooks? Or plumbers? Or online poker players?

Like most people, there are some gender disparities that I find troubling, and others I don't much care about. I wonder how others decide when they care, because it seems to me that people care about Wikipedia, even though its general characteristics make it seem a lot like the things we don't normally care about. There aren't any barriers to entry blocking women who want to participate, there isn't an ugly history of discriminating against women, being a Wikipedia contributor isn't a high status position or a proving ground for other high status positions, the women foregoing participation aren't missing out on career opportunities or sacrificing future financial security, we aren't intuitively aware of the disparity, no one particularly complains that Wikipedia entries are biased against women in any way, a group of concerned volunteers could easily add articles on any subjects the mostly male club of contributors is missing...

So what gives? Society is rife with gender disparities. Why focus on this one when the consequences of other gender disparities are problematic in the ways listed above? The Feministing writer argues that with only 13 percent of all contributors being women "we’re all missing out on a pretty hefty loaf of knowledge." Are we? Like what? I actually thought about this, and try as I might I couldn't come up with a very good list, but maybe Dish readers can do better – remember, this isn't stuff that an all male group wouldn't be able to contribute, it's stuff that a mostly male group with some women thrown in too couldn't handle. (Related question: do men feel less guilty about editing Wikipedia entries at work than women? Just a thought.)