Sunday, 16 December 2012
I was innocently listening to a podcast interview with Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the body that runs Wikipedia. The strengths and weaknesses, the ups and downs of Wikipedia, were all forthrightly discussed. Then came the part that really grabbed attention The question was asked about the current state of the "gender gap" among Wikipedia contributors. It turns out that only between 10%-15% of its contributors are women. Gardner acknowledged this data point and noted that the imbalance between male and female contributors might have an influence on the contents that appear on Wikipedia. She expressed the hope that the imbalance would be corrected.
This exchange grabbed this Kat's attention and he set about to search for additional information about the alleged gender gap. It apparently turns out that an article by Noam Cohen that appeared in The New York Times on January 30, 2011--"Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia's Contributor List", here, gave particular impetus to the issue. The article observed that only 13% of the contributors are women. The article went on to consider various reasons for the imbalance. For example, it was suggested that because of the characteristics of the early contributors, "Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd," including "an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women." Another suggestion was that "women are less willing to assert their opinion in public."
Ms Gardner's position, set forth both in the podcast and as quoted in The New York Times article, is that the gender gap might adversely affect the ability of "the encyclopedia [to be] as good as it could be. The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know." She went to use a bit of imagery: "Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table. If they are not at the table, we don't benefit from their crumbs."
What is of particular interest to this Kat whether the issue is in the contents included on the site or something more subtle. The article itself opted for the latter, observing that "[w]ith so many subjects presented--most everything has an article on Wikipedia--the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis." For instance, it It pointed to such differences as an article on something that might interest teenage girls, such as friendship bracelets, receiving scant treatment while an entry on something for boys, such as baseball cards, enjoying much greater attention. In contrast, Ms. Gardner's comments seemed to emphasize the possible absence of contents based on gender. If our collective consciousness of what constitutes contents and knowledge is at stake, the answer to these questions is not insignificant.
Or not? For instance, this Kat does not recall any similar discussion about who determined and contributed to the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. One response is that, in retrospect, assuming that the Britannica was largely staffed by men, the same question should have been asked about it. The fact that the issue was not raised then does not affect the current relevance of the matter to Wikipedia. That the Britannica was maintained and managed by "professionals" also not change the discussion. And so we are return to the basic question: should the gender gap among the contributors of Wikipedia be a matter of concern?
[Kat team member Jeremy comments: this issue can be said to be relevant to the world's major intellectual property organisations too: only 5 out of 15 members of the AIPPI Bureau are women, while 11 out of 25 members of the MARQUES Council are, including the chair and first vice-chair; INTA's Board 39-strong Board of Directors is split nearly 50-50, with 19 women to 20 men. On contrast, just one of FICPI's six Bureau members is a woman, and there are two women on LES International's 11-strong Board of Directors. Would any of these organisations operate differently if the proportions were otherwise?].