Is the number one online knowledge source, Wikipedia, sexist?
Wikipedia, that worldwide encyclopedia whose mission is to gather the entire planet’s knowledge, is far from representing it. In fact, it primarily represents men. Why is women’s underrepresentation such a problem and why do they contribute so little? We analyse the situation.
As of the writing of this article, Wikipedia contains over 5 billion articles and is the fourth most visited site on the web. It is very well referenced, which makes it accessible by search engines. It’s easy to deduce that if you have internet access, you’ve very likely read a virtual encyclopedia article before.
The site is consulted a lot, but who is it written by? According to a 2011 survey by the Wikipedia Foundation, it’s 91.5% men. The largest source of knowledge on the internet is written almost entirely by men. Sandrine Ricci, sociologist and coordinator of the Quebec Network for Feminist Studies (Réseau québécois en études féministes (ReQEF)) at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), explained to me that this gender gap in site contributions reflects our patriarchal society and that it makes Wikipedia sexist.
A flagrant example that’s often presented to illustrate this lack of diversity is the difference between two Wikipedia articles, one on pornographic actresses and another on women poets. One was meticulously organized by decade and well-referenced while the other was just a long, alphabetical list. I’m using the past tense because these two pages have since been modified.
An article from NewStatesman offers another example. It’s about the experience of contributor Zara Rahman and the Wikipedia article on Hedy Lamarr, which made more mention of her acting career than of her invention that paved the way for the Wi-Fi technology that we know today. Zara Rahman decided to edit the article so that it would reflect the importance of Lamarr’s invention, but her changes were quickly erased by another person whose rationale was that Lamarr’s acting career was more referenced than her invention. Since Hedy Lamarr was a woman living in the 1940’s, there are more articles discussing her acting career than her scientific innovations; at the time, the people writing articles were men and they spent most of their time talking about… men!
“Women are often hesitant to position themselves as experts. It’s a reflection of the power dynamics between women and men. Women lack self-confidence.” – Sandrine Ricci, sociologist
Women are therefore less present, although in theory they could contribute just as much as men. Sandrine Ricci explained that the average age of Wikipedia contributors is 25, “an age where the digital gender divide is extremely small.” So why aren’t girls and young women contributing more to Wikipedia?
The ReQEF coordinator postulates that they have less free time than their masculine counterparts. “Women are often busier making a living. Considering that for the same work women receive less pay than men, they have to work more to earn the same amount.”
The sociologist also describes how women’s socialization could factor in to their underrepresentation. “Women are often hesitant to position themselves as experts. It’s a reflection of the power dynamics between women and men. Women lack self-confidence.”
In the end, the encyclopedic site resembles the rest of the web: an unwelcome place for women. “There are conversations on Wikipedia that are abusive toward women. They are not treated the same as men.” Sandrine Ricci says.
Wikipedia is aware of the gender divide in its contributors. During a 2016 interview, founder Jimmy Wales said that the community is made up of 80% men, that Wikipedia thought that that was a problem, and that it was something they were studying. He claimed that they are inviting women to come help them.
It’s a fine first step but it’s far from being enough. I’d even say that I find it pretty weak and easy to chuck that responsibility onto the backs of women. Looking at Wikipedia’s press release page, I noticed that a worldwide contest had recently been organised “to enrich Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects with articles, images and other material dedicated to [the] Ural region,” but I couldn’t find a thing about any sort of action to close the gender gap.
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