October 27, 2011

The 9%: Women on Wikipedia


Remember the surprisingly unsurprising news from the New York Times way back in January, that fewer than 15% of Wikipedia contributors were women? Then there was the even more depressing report from the Wikimedia Foundation itself, which confirmed that the figure for editors was less than 9%. Well, the new-media researcher Sarah Stierch has just published an unscientific study based on a survey of 329 female and MtF transgender editors, which throws up some pretty interesting results. The size of the sample makes it difficult to read too much into the stats, but there’s some enlightenment and plenty of pause for thought in the comments.  Here’s a selection:

On why respondents sometimes don’t or can’t contribute to Wikimedia projects:

* I loved Wikipedia and its community dearly, but I’ve grown tired of its culture — argumentative, rude, often very explicitly sexual in behind-the-scene chats and discussions, and it creates an atmosphere where usually the strongest character with the most stubborn stance gets his/her way in the end.

* I encounter a lot of racism and little is done about it. I simply do not feel welcome.

Asked whether they felt they’d ever been assaulted, attacked or treated poorly by colleagues on projects:

* My areas of interest and expertise are often attacked as uninteresting and trivial, and this has included a threat to AfD any article I write on a particular topic.

* Christ, too many times to list. It’s the way things operate on the Internet. Disagreement means the other person’s an asshole. I’m guilty of it too… Makes me think I should go online with alcohol more often. It’s more amusing that way.

* The civility policy is simply not enforced, in fact looking at ANI on any day will demonstrate the admins themselves violate it, defend their friends who violate it, and in some cases actively state that it is bunkum. This is hypocritical and disconcerting, and goes beyond the specific issue of sexism (which I think is way overblown). I suspect most of the editors who insult me can’t be bothered to consider the possibility I am female; they just consider insults and hostility to be acceptable modes of interaction within the project.

And on off-Wiki attacks:

* I’m a former arbitrator, mediator, administrator, OTRS responder, and umpteen other things. The pattern of women at that level being cyber-stalked off the project is so thorough, and has happened to so many of us…

* At the time I joined WP, there was some rather extensive and vicious harassment directed at women editors (those involved had been banned, but there was no effective means of preventing them from off-wiki harassment). Thus I chose a genderless username and did not publicly state I was female, until several years later when I was running for adminship. (Some people already knew, though.) This issue continues to recur; although much off-wiki harassment is not gender-based, I believe women are much more sensitive to it. We can do a better job of alerting new contributors, including women, about how to respond (or more particularly, not respond) to harassment like this.

Scary stuff, especially when you consider just how important this resource is now. The Wikimedia Foundation has pledged to increase participation on all fronts by 2015, because aside from the gender gap, half of all its editors are under 22, and four out of five come from countries in the Global North. The campaign needs outreach, so spread the word.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.