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Indian Wikimedian Communities and the Gender Gap - A Space of Change, Negotiation, and Growth

Posted by Bhuvana Meenakshi at Mar 09, 2020 12:05 PM |
This blog post covers key findings of the Wikipedia Gender Gap research completed by Ting-Yi Chang in April 2018. The paper was titled “Examining Female Editors’ Identity and Agency Negotiation Process within Indian Wikimedia Projects and Communities”. Here Ting-Yi brings us several observations on how the contributions by women editors' impacts Indian Wikimedia. This research focuses on participation of the women in Wikimedia activities with an emphasis on creating safe spaces and encouraging skill development.

More than two years have passed since I left India and the Indian Wikimedian communities who supported my research with considerable generosity and invaluable insights. The paper “Examining Female Editors’ Identity and Agency Negotiation Process within Indian Wikimedia Projects and Communities” was eventually finished in April 2018, featuring a qualitative analysis on 21 female Indian Wikimedians’ experiences within the communities[1].
 
Due to the nature of a university thesis, the paper put great emphasis on theoretical framework testing and application, which was a good exercise for a young researcher but a rather non-approachable piece for the general public. This blog post serves to mitigate this gap to cover the key findings through 6 Q&As.
 
Research Context
When engaging with Indian Wikimedian Communities and looking at literature on Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D), I figured that a lot of attention was given to the question of access, awareness, and skills - “Do women have internet access and devices?” “Is there enough awareness among women?” “Do women have enough technical skills to participate in online activities?”
 
However, for me, empowerment means asking more than these questions. After a woman has gained enough access, awareness, and skills, shouldn’t we ask: “How does she feel when she goes online or participate in a project like Wikipedia editing?” “Does her identity as a woman influence her power and the choices she makes in a male-dominant online community?” “How can we do better as a community to sensitize ourselves and make women feel more welcoming in the online space?”
 
This research hence used Wikimedian Communities in India as a case study to answer the following questions:
 
Q1: Is a free and open knowledge movement friendly to female Wikimedians and beginners?
The research found that almost all female participants who we interviewed expressed that they are in support of a free and open knowledge movement. Some of them also stated that their pride and passion in their mother tongue and culture was a major factor that motivates their participation. However, while answering this question, many also mentioned the barriers posed by a “free” movement. Since participating in Wikimedia projects is a volunteer work, some female Wikimedians reflected that they had to face doubts and questioning from their family who did not see their involvement as something beneficial - at least not on a monetary level. Many also mentioned the opportunity costs that are unique to a female Wikimedian. For example, women may be expected to take up more caretaking and household chores that would prevent them from going to community meetups and editing events. In other words, a “free” and “volunteer-based” project imposes an invisible threshold of privileges - those who have higher educational backgrounds, more disposable income and time are more likely to participate. Hence, Wikimedia projects’ free and open nature could be a double edged sword.
 
Q2: Is a Wikimedian community an effective space for gender/feminist movements?
Since there is an increase in the awareness of the Wikipedia gender gap and in the number of Gender Gap Bridging initiatives, it is easy to assume that a Wikimedian community is an effective space for movements. However, our research found that these movements and initiatives in Indian Wikimedian Communities have usually been small by scale, temporary, and event-based (e.g. gender gap bridging themed edit-a-thons). The reason behind could be that Wikimedian Communities’ main objective is essentially content creation, resulting in the situation that movements are usually associated with content creating activities. Alternatively, having the space for “non-productive” discussion and sensitizing training could in fact be productive and helpful for the community health as a whole. For example, I noted that building a “socializing” space creates a sense of belonging to many female Wikimedians and could possibly increase their willingness to be part of the projects in the long run.
 
Q3: Do female Wikimedians find that their online identity are unaffected by offline identities such as gender?

To quickly answer this question - No, a woman’s offline identity is very much connected to her online identity and experience. Through the interview process, we’ve learned that many female Wikimedians have chosen to primarily engage online in order to avoid uncomfortable offline interaction. However, it was also mentioned that online harassment, threats, and discrimination are still a common experience. Some informants also mentioned that in such close-knit communities like the Indian Wikimedian Communities, it is hard to be fully online or anonymous. Offline interaction and events actually are a very important part of community engagement that female Wikimedians risk missing out on. Hence, reconstructing both the online and offline community space are necessary as there is no one space that is “genderless.”
 
Q4: Do female Wikimedians perceive that they are treated fairly and receive equitable resources and opportunities within the Wikimedian communities?
Many female Wikimedians reflected that they felt welcome and treated equality as members of the Wikimedian Communities. Some even raise examples on how they were recognized as key contributors in their language communities. However, there are also comments on the “tokenizing” aspect of a seemingly well-intended, equitable practice. In one interview, an informant mentioned that she was “reminded” that the opportunity she was given was a perk based on her gender. Yet another informant stated that she was given opportunities but not on a decision-making level. Some other informants also mentioned that in order for women to be recognized as productive contributors, there needs to be changes on the inherent biased guidelines on what is “verifiable” and “notable” knowledge. In other words, it is not only on a community level that women could face discrimination, it is also in the knowledge system where we must challenge inequality.
 
Q5: Do female Wikimedians feel free when they are editing and engaging in the communities?

Many female Wikimedians stated that they feel free as in free to edit and to learn. Some, however, stated that when it comes to procedural freedom on how they should be writing and how they should contribute in the community, there are still certain pressure on women imposed by more experienced Wikimedians.
 
Q6: Does participating in Wikimedian community activities help female Wikimedians gain confidence and skills to pursue self-realization?
Most female Wikimedians who had worked on the projects for a while and took leadership positions in their communities commented that the experience enabled them to adopt new skills and confidence that they found useful in Wikimedia projects and beyond. Many commented that they were able to explore different possibilities and knowledge through the projects and through learning with the communities who have taught to inspired them. Some, however, also mentioned that although they have gained new skills, there is a certain level of self-censorship on things a female Wikimedian could say and edit on. For example, they take “calculated risk” when editing Wikipedia pages on feminist topics and other more debated gender issues which often attract conflicts. Some also mentioned that their self-realization and accomplishments need to be recognized instead of belittled or brushed off because of their gender. This reminds us that building confidence, skills, and pursuing self-realization is not an individual goal, it is so intrinsically connected to the community that we work together. Creating and maintaining a healthy community culture is hence imperative. 


The link to the full paper can be found here.


[1] There were 23 informants participating in the research data collection process. 21 of them were female-identified individuals while the remaining 2 non-female interviewees were key informants within the communities.

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