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Another 5 Years: What Have We Learned about the Wikipedia Gender Gap and What Has Been Done? (Part 1)

Posted by Ting-Yi Chang at Sep 18, 2016 06:25 AM |
Five years after Wikimedia Foundation’s 2011 editor survey was conducted and revealed the gender gap issue, scholars, practitioners, and communities around the globe have come a long way to address the gender imbalance of the online encyclopedia. This blog post series (of three parts) serve as a summary of movements and discoveries about Wikipedia gender gap on both local (India) and global scales.

“Our editing community continues to suffer from a lack of women editors…. only 8.5% of editors are women.

Probably the most cited statement for Wikipedia gender gap studies, the editor survey conducted by Wikimedia Foundation in April 2011 revealed the alarming imbalance within the online encyclopedia community(s). In the same survey, the percentage of female Wikipedians in India is reported as only 3%. When we have repeatedly emphasized on the development and changes the internet can bring to our societies, how do we ensure that behind our computer screen it is not just another mirror reflecting what has been silenced and forgotten?

 

What is the Wikipedia gender gap?

There are two main focus on the gender gap within Wikipedia – the editor demographic and the coverage of topics – which are essentially flip sides of a coin. With fewer female contributors, we are losing a more diverse knowledge platform for all. But the issue is far more complex than simply having less information about “friendship bracelets” than “baseball cards.”

Looking at the biography pages on Wikipedia, researchers found that not only is the number of female biographies much lower than males’ (due to historical factors, availability of firsthand sources, and editors’ interest), but the linguistic and topical bias within also presents a male-centered discourse. For example, on women’s biography pages, words related to one’s gender such as “women,” “female,” “lady” will be used more commonly than the counterpart words in men’s pages; and that a women’s biography will have more information about her marriage and family life than her male counterpart’s. Studies also found that female-related articles are more likely to be linked to male-related ones but not the other way around[1]. This demonstrates that the editing preference, styles, and content are closely related to the editors’ genders and how they see the world. In other words, language and knowledge cannot be separated from one’s gender – the Internet may be bodiless but it can never become genderless[2].

Wagner et al.’s paper[3] in early 2016 also confirmed the existence of a “glass ceiling” for female figures to be considered “notable” enough to have a Wikipedia bio page (or for the page not to be deleted). Who gets to decide what is “notable enough” becomes questionable when we understand the gender bias. As a matter of fact, while the difference in male and female biography numbers is narrower for globally known figures, a larger gender gap exists for “local hero(ine)s” because of the notability threshold applied. That is to say, many women and female-related topics are underrepresented (and underappreciated) on Wikipedia.

The danger and why it matters

Low awareness

The Wikipedia gender gap is problematic and deserves more attention than ever not only because gender imbalance should be tackled both online and offline, but also that this imbalance is so prevalent and has been taken for granted by most. Little do people consider, that with every single “click” on one’s google search, we can be provided with an answer from a single-gender narration. This imbalance and its problems are behind the scene – the share of male and female editors are never on the surface without a holistic survey. While gender balance has been pushed in our business, education, and government sectors, the online encyclopedia feeding billions of internet users (and over 300 million in India itself)  is still constructed in a male-dominant culture with little questioning from the public.

Legacy and influence

There is the saying that Internet is changing the human default from “forgetting” into “remembering.” Wikipedia can serve as a great tool for digitization of knowledge and the preservation of languages. What is to be recorded now will become parts of (perhaps the most accessible) history in the future, and we cannot afford a history without women’s voices and knowledge. Hence, to include more women editors and women-related content is not simply out of a concern of diversity, it is to ensure that this time we can pass on the legacy in a better and more equitable fashion for the whole population.

The vicious circle

“We’ve to participate in meet ups and workshops, then question (from family members) arises like how many guys are there, is there any girl or not. In one sentence we're discouraged by our surrounding.”

– Female editor from local community

The urgency of this problem is that the lesser women are presented in the communities, the harder a motivation can be established for new female editors to join. Now that we have made this issue visible, the core mission we have is to ensure a change in the system and environment that helps women feel more welcomed and comfortable – even when they are aware that they are the minority.

 

In the next part of this blog series: Why is there a Gender Gap?

 



[1] Wagner, Graells-Garrido, Garcia, & Menczer, (2016). Women through the glass ceiling: gender asymmetries in Wikipedia. EPJ Data Science. (5)1. Pp 1-24.

Graells-Garrido, Lalmas, & Menczer, (2015). First women second sex: gender bias in Wikipedia. In Proceedings of the 26th ACM Conference on Hypertext & Social Media (pp165).

Wagner, Garcia, Jadidi, & Strohmaier, (2015). It’s a man’s Wikipedia? Assessing gender inequality in an online encyclopedia. From the Wikipedia editor community is sensible to gender in Proceedings of the Ninth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media 454. URL: https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM15/paper/viewFile/10585/10528

[2] Code, L. (2000). Encyclopedia of feminist theories. London: Routledge

[3] Wagner, Graells-Garrido, Garcia, & Menczer, (2016). Women through the glass ceiling: gender asymmetries in Wikipedia. EPJ Data Science. (5)1. Pp 1-24.

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