I Finally Figured Out What Is Wrong With Wikipedia

And it might reflect a moderate generalism on the internet as well: there are not enough women.

Jennifer Van Grove, a prolific contributor of value to the internet over at Mashable reports on the results of a study conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s parent) regarding the demographics of Wikipedia contributors and the shocking imbalance. 175,000 responses were collected. Of 53,888 respondents who copped to contributing to Wikipedia, only 6,814 or 13%, were women. More on the study can be found at the Wall Street Journal.

There are some other statistics mentioned. Women are less likely to read Wikipedia articles for one. I also noted a sizeable reason driving non-contribution across respondents – “[o]ne quarter, however, said they’re afraid of making a mistake “and getting ‘in trouble’ for it.” Given the other figures, this response must have been a popular one among the female non-contributing respondents.

These particular hues and cries are not new. I recently responded to a solicitation from a gadget blog looking for female tech bloggers because “there are just not enough of us out there.” About a year ago, or thereabouts, there was some flap in the legal blawgosphere about the lack of female law bloggers. I posted my reply here. And now, we have this “startling” announcement that women Wikipedia contributors are few and far between.

So, assuming this all to be true (and there is some degree of assumption there), the obvious question is why?

Van Grove opens her post with the paragraph: “[w]omen are consummate content creators online. From technology mavens like Google’s Marissa Mayer to influential mommy bloggers, and even YouTube() stars like iJustine, females have played a significant role in shaping web trends.”

But, other than Mayer, these trends are in decidedly non-academic, non-technical subject areas. Why the lack of women in the brainier on-line realms? If you look at enrollment in institutions of higher education, you will not see this degree of disparity between the sexes. In fact, in some areas of intellectual pursuit, women outnumber men. Law school enrollment figures place women on equal footing with men. So why do these figures not translate to greater participation on the Web in places like legal and tech blogging and Wikipedia contribution?

I don’t intent to engage in a lengthy dissertation on the socialogies and psychologies of women and men in academics, the workplace or our society in general, as I do believe that traditional roles have been changing for some time (although not enough to satisfy my sense of equality). I will point out a couple of thoughts. First, I suggest taking the reason provided above at its face value: I believe women have a greater fear than men of the fallout from speaking out on a topic and suffering reprisal. Whether it is a reason fostered by nature or nuture is unimportant – the fact of my own personal experience is that women (o.k., well, myself anyway) are more concerned with being right than being visible. Whether women are correct more or less than men in reality is not essential to an understanding of the point. Women may be more interested than men in making sure they are right or sitting back rather than speaking when they see the grey area in a particular subject. And maybe women get enough reprisal in other venues, so they may not volunteer to put themselves in such a public limelight solely for altruism or entertainment value.

Second, I will simply point you to the comments, starting with comment number one by an individual owning only to the name “man”, to Van Grove’s post. Oh, maybe I will just reprint that first comment right here for your reading pleasure:

Wikipedia has to be fact-checked and referenced, whereas women prefer to make baseless claims and get into arguments. Attempting to end the argument by referencing an actual document is only going to piss them off, the only positive result is to acquiese.

This does not mean they are always wrong, they are correct roughly 50% of the time. But no fact-checking.

So there you have it.


51 comments on “I Finally Figured Out What Is Wrong With Wikipedia

  1. i think this is not tru if women are stupid then man. This is only because of our society design which design by alpha male domination against nature. This psychical strength make them easily construct our society. One of it is women shouldn’t wrong or something like that.

  2. Interesting statistic, for sure. So you’re not arguing that women are more concerned with accuracy, but rather have a greater fear of being wrong than men? From my own experiences, though, it would seem to be correct. Many men do tend to be more comfortable or fearless with blustering, whereas many women seem to have a greater need for the safety of sure information before speaking. That said, as a woman, you’re contradicting your own argument by blogging about a theoretical statistic, since you admit that you can only surmise that the one quarter of non-contributors who cited fear of getting in trouble were women, instead of men or an even-mixture.

  3. Guilty as charged, Mr. Moody! I am treading on the thin ice of double hearsay as I haven’t even seen the actual study, but only the report of a report of it. The rest is from my own personal experience and where do I come off generalizing for all women and men? I guess I have overcome my own fears of reprisal and heartily drink of the hair of the dog that might bite me. 😉



    p.s. – I think “blustering” really is too strong a word for it – I would clarify it as men being more likely or ready to take risks than women

  4. Allow to me to say this: When everyone are busy painting the house, it’s always nice to know that somebody is busy in the kitchen making sandwiches and coffee. The feminists might not like this kind of reasoning, but there are things that we can not figure by such scientific dissertations alone. And somebody said that sandwiches and coffee are not important? Wait until they’ve finished painting.

  5. Diversity general equates to an increase in quality. Narrow perspectives tend to omit information and options.

    So Wikipedia needs more women. How do we get there?

  6. A very good question. I agree that opinions from a broader scope of sources are better than the narrower option. At this point, I am in the early stages of identifying the problem and collecting information. It is too easy to say that it is merely another example of the differences between men and women as there are unique aspects to internet contribution that could encourage a more level playing field. I am curious as to anyone else’s ideas on how to solve the gap.



  7. I agree we shouldn’t merely shrug and blame it on the differences in the sexes. The answer might have something to do with finding out what would make the activity more interesting to women. I’m not quite sure what that might look like, though.

  8. For some women, the process is inherently attractive – clearly there are some women out there doing it. Maybe we should poll those who are and ask them why they do it? Wikimedia Foundation did ask that question and altruism (providing assistance for the greater good) was one of the reasons and this resonates with me personally. I love to help. I think that is a trait often found in women. But how can we make this reason (or other positive motivators) loom larger than the reasons against contributing? Hmmm.



  9. Maybe it’s that women are smart enough to realize that Wikipedia is mostly b.s., a playground for ego battles. Have you read the Discussion boards?

    While most of the women I know can’t be said to be ego-less, most of them seem less inclined to play the same ego games my male friends do.

    Thanks! Interesting post!

  10. “For my part, I definitely like the thought that someone is making the sandwiches and coffee while I am painting the house.”

    And how! (from a woman who loves to cook and “paint the house”).

    There’s a time and a place for everything;)

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  12. CP – If you poke around my blog a bit, you might find that I share your sentiment (to a point) about the value of Wikipedia (although I don’t know much about the ego battle part).

    Glad you enjoyed the post!



  13. Nicole – I think I would add to the phrase “from a woman who loves to cook and ‘paint the house'” the clause “and does both with great expertise.” Thanks for weighing in from the perspective of a woman who traverses and contributes to the internet intellectual playground in a consistently meaningful way!



  14. Sometimes I am embarassed both by & for my fellow gender-mates. This is one of those moments. The vast majority of recorded human history has been dominated by male leadership & look where it’s brought us to (connote whatever negatives you wish to insert here). In many ways, it’s well past the time for us men to sit down, shut up, & let women drive the bus for a while.

    ‘Nuff said.


  15. I don’t comment on wikipedia because of its unreliability, but sometimes use it only for non-essential elements. However, I do blog, comment politically, and I do not need to prove I am right; I certainly do not want the limelight if I am wrong. lol.

  16. Not to mention, I think we all need to get off the feminist band wagon. Women have come a long way in society. I believe in equality not female domination. I also believe men can make good and bad decisions like females make good and bad decisions. I can give you examples on how women feminists live quite the self centered life. I once had this woman come in to motor vehicle and demand the title to her vehicle be redone. Her husbands name was listed first. She wanted to be listed first. It did not matter to her when I explained, it doesn’t matter who is listed first on the title because each person has equal authority on the title no matter what legal status is on it. So she spent the unneccessary $4 and a half n hour waiting in line that day just to be “first.”

  17. Nikki –

    Truth be told, I don’t contribute to Wikipedia mainly due to lack of time – I am spread too thin across other matters, both on and off the Web. It does trouble me, though, that women are underrepresented there. I too try to avoid gender-based generalizations – there are too many combinations of characteristics for gender to serve as the overarching one. I do prize collaboration formed by the broadest possible representation of viewpoints. I believe that the greater the diversity of the contribution, the greater the chance the final product approximates a “truth”, whatever that may be.



  18. blackenedgreen,
    I totally agree with you. Plus, while I am in the kitchen preparing snacks for the hard working males (of which I will gladly let them paint the house) I get to snack on the food, talk to my friends, and occasionally sneak in some computer time. The smart one lets the man do the hard stuff so us women can stay out of the sunlight.

  19. Fascinating entry. Thanks for writing about this.
    I (a girl) once took an online quiz to determine my nerdiness level. One of the questions was “Do you edit Wikipedia?” to which I had to respond yes. I’ve added some content to a page about one of my favorite writers, and edit for grammar and spelling all the time. But I’ve never written a whole page, and have often wondered why not. Is writing information on Wikipedia just too earnest, too hopelessly geeky an endeavor? I tell myself that I’m not enough of an expert to add content, but it’s quite obvious that many of Wikipedia’s content-writers aren’t experts, either! Your hypothesis that women don’t edit as much because of their fears of being wrong ring really true for me, at least.

  20. Wikipedia isn’t exactly the brainy haven that you’re making it out to be. Personally, women just have better things to do with their time than spend hours on this sort of thing. As for being wrong? It’s anonymous. (Which might also be skewing the stats, by the way, as no one has to report their gender honestly.)

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing that women are on the computer less, quite frankly. We’re dominating college, rising in the workplace; and that’s where it counts.

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  22. Dear blackendgreen,

    I recently repainted my entire basement, which I’m in the process of refinishing.

    I ordered pizza.

    In case it matters to you, it was delivered by a guy.

  23. Great post, Martha, and good back-and-forth in the comments. I’ve done a bit of Wikipedia editing and wouldn’t mind doing more, but I just don’t have time.

  24. It is nice to know that intelligent woman are participating over there, Mary. The idea of writing or editing a Wikipedia entry is appealing to me (oh, does that make me sound geeky?) but my main deterrent really is the time factor. Plus I cannot think of a single subject on which I would consider myself enough of an authority such that there wouldn’t be someone else with greater knowledge and more to offer. I guess that just proves my own feelings of insufficiency, which I do find a bit startling given that we are NOT talking about the Encyclopedia Britannica here.

    This whole conversation has been very interesting and enlightening to me. Thanks to everyone for the great comments!



  25. I wonder what the gender balance is in other knowledge repositories. Do Mahalo, Freebase or Knol have the same levels of imbalance?

  26. I don’t really see anything wrong with this. Does the inequality result in less accurate articles? I don’t really thin so. All wiki articles are cross-referenced by hundreds of users and anyone can edit them.

    For me it’s just a matter of interest, I mean do more men have fashion or home improvement sites/blogs? These are repositories of valuable information as well.

  27. May I put a spin on the topic? It sounds rather sexist, but I think its an interesting thought nonetheless:

    Wikipedia is an intriguing project…it is only as good as its volunteers make it. Since women contribute to it much less than men do, are we justified in blaming Wikipedia’s flaws on the (many) women of the world who have not made any effort to remedy the situation?

    Rather than blaming women, though, I would turn the spotlight on professors and those who are fully capable to aid in the creation of high-quality encyclopedic articles, but have not chosen to do so via Wikipedia.

  28. hmmn….quiet interesting….but i don’t think women just dont want to commit mistakes with speaking things out…i’ll tell one fact about women…their mouths are uncontrollable (though maybe thats only in my country), so how come they’re afraid to commit mistakes in the net…or maybe it’s just that they have nothing to contribute about this businesses coz they’re more interested in parenting, beauty,etc…hehe..but well, this is my idea, i mean, no one can contradict..hehe

  29. Fascinating study. I don’t think we should jump to conclusions. The “first comment” is so ridiculous as to be laughable. To say that Wikipedia has to be fact-checked is to live in an ideal world. Go to any post off the hard science trail, and you’ll find that Wiki is all over the place. Does anybody really expect a fair and balanced Wiki entry on Scientology (for example)?

    I think you could do the same study on the Encyclopedia Britannica, and come up with similar results.

    It doesn’t take a certain gender to want to write and explain, it takes a certain mind set. Now maybe it’s just the case that men are more likely to be explainers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t explain the preponderance of women teachers (not just now, but back into the early 1800s).

    Here’s an interesting note: jessica says she’ll edit, but not put up a new entry. In fact, I feel the same way. Everything I’ve thought of writing about already has a passel of pages, with the usual “you’re wrong – it’s this way” … “no, you’re wrong – it’s that way” … in the edit history.

    I think there might be a parallel example in people who write blogs, and people who only comment on other people’s.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you found a correlation between those people and people who start conversations in groups, and people who join in.

    My theory is that given any measurable characteristic X, men and women are different in terms of it. Some more, some less.

    As the French might say, “let’s drink to the difference”.

  30. Dear Valerie,

    Really? what flavor?

    Yeah, I knew that expression is quite dangerous, I feel a little bit like a dim witted person my self. I am a man indeed, but I never have the thought that women should be in the kitchen while men do that “manly” work, I don’t recognise such “hierarcy” of “classification” as men’s or women’s domain.

    Now, there are alot of people from all over the world contributed to this supposedly online encyclopaedia, in any proportions, be it authoring or editing, to make a conclusion to their motives, a few hundred questionaires might not be enough.

    To make it short, I don’t believe that less contribution to wikipedia is a kind of evidence that a gender is inferior to the other. besides, the Internet is not only consisted of wiki. I tend to regard that wiki is not always a reliable source of information, its power lies within its availability to be developed by the community in seconds.

    Related to this, there are some people (mostly men, perhaps) with this sense of accomplishment everytime they write something on wiki. Perhaps somebody can point out how precise and usefull the many contributions made by men compared to the small amount of contribution (and corrections) made by women. And I agree with Phill’s suggestion (and not because he is a man;).

    I am sorry if my previous comment bother you in some way, never really meant that. Cheers!

  31. Wikipedia is (was?) the ultimate online free-for-all, so if there are fewer women contributing it is completely of their own volition. There’s no discrimination, no glass ceiling, no gender bias, just plain old differences in preference between how men and women choose to spend their time.

    Rather than imposing entrenched and politicized assumptions from outside of Wikipedia onto the gender ratio on that site, how about we take a clue from this pure expression of women’s choice and apply it to similar disparities in the world outside of Wikipedia?

    We tend to view every example of women being “underrepresented” as some sort of “problem” that needs to be “fixed,” usually by bashing some presumably dastardly men on the head for their, again, presumed bad behavior. Perhaps, sometimes women just don’t care to do the exact same things men do in the exact same numbers, even when they are totally free to do so.

    The idea that it’s a problem whenever men and women don’t participate in the same activities at precisely the same rates is, to put it bluntly, stupid.

  32. Fair enough, Nelson. I am not suggesting Wikipedia is at fault for causing it, I am merely thinking that Wikipedia is poorer for it. And I would love to figure out why it is and how to get women to participate more! I, for one, don’t at all view every example of women being “underrepresented” as some sort of “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” I am not at ALL bashing men for for the dearth of women on Wikipedia or anywhere else for that matter. And that is why I expressly avoided a discussion of the broader issue of gender roles in society in the original post. Don’t you find it even a little curious that women don’t choose to participate, precisely because they are totally free to do so? It’s not just some women, it is a LOT of women choosing not and I would love to know why (and I got some answers from women in these comments, which I appreciate!).

    I do think women should seek to make their voices heard more in intellectual venues – we have a lot to say and a lot to add to the conversation. But as a group, apparently, we don’t choose to add to the conversation as much as men choose to do. What kind of a catalyst is needed here?



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  35. Here’s an interesting note: jessica says she’ll edit, but not put up a new entry. In fact, I feel the same way. Everything I’ve thought of writing about already has a passel of pages, with the usual.

  36. Fair enough, Nelson. I am not suggesting Wikipedia is at fault for causing it, I am merely thinking that Wikipedia is poorer for it. And I would love to figure out why it is and how to get women to participate more

  37. I do think women should seek to make their voices heard more in intellectual venues – we have a lot to say and a lot to add to the conversation.

  38. Wikipedia is (was?) the ultimate online free-for-all, so if there are fewer women contributing it is completely of their own volition. There’s no discrimination, no glass ceiling, no gender bias, just plain old differences in preference between how men and women choose to spend their time.

  39. Fair enough, Nelson. I am not suggesting Wikipedia is at fault for causing it, I am merely thinking that Wikipedia is poorer for it. And I would love to figure out why it is and how to get women to participate more! I, for one, don’t at all view every example of women being “underrepresented” as some sort of “problem” that needs to be “fixed.

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