I’m a woman, and I’ve edited Wikipedia

Spacefem is an electrical engineer who has a little extra time to run a feminist forum, write php scripts, and fly small airplanes.

The New York Times has an article about how only about 13% of Wikipedia contributors are female.

That’s a little concerning, considering the fact that Wikipedia is supposed to be the “sum of all human knowledge”. The article has several examples of articles where women might have more knowledge about the topics, they’re important topics, but the articles are lacking in substance and content.

I actually ran into a discussion about this on the user talk page for Jimbo Wales a few weeks ago, if you can believe it. There was a big debate about it, with all the things you might see… people asking why it mattered if women were contributing or not, people suggesting that Wikipedia needs an easier user interface so it’s not so intimidating for new people.

General note: I do not think Wikipedia needs an easier user interface. From the Geocities pages of old to MySpace pages and blogs of the modern age, plenty of women have proven that we can learn markup tags.

In my experience though, people tend to do things their friends are doing. Women tend to get into things they see other women doing… in fact we tend to dominate social networks. So maybe women just don’t see their girlfriends on Wikipedia enough? Or maybe no one’s invited us to the projects, so we get that sense that we’re not islands, we’re contributing to something big?

Once I got started on Wikipedia I really liked editing. I found it easiest to get involved in local stuff… articles about my state, city, neighborhood. Those are topics I’m familiar with, but they’re not all that fleshed out yet.

I also just liked reading up on topics I enjoyed, and filling in red links. It was easy to create new pages once I had my feet wet editing paragraphs on bigger articles.

Are my contributions perfect, with rock-solid references and links to every possible related page? No. Do I contribute every day, or every month? No. But it’s not about that, I see Wikipedia as a “beating the curve” sort of thing. Write articles that are better than other articles. Make improvements, even if they’re small. Do something small. It’s so much easier than running a blog or web page, where you have do make consistent good updates all the time… it’s low-maintenance. It’s great.

I don’t have a magic answer for the Wikimedia Foundation on how to get more women to contribute. But I can say to anyone reading this that it’s a good thing to do… and most people who read my blog are women. So readers, bring your “crumb to the table”. When you post an update to twitter or your blog or a forum, you’re contributing. A piece of yourself and your words are out there for someone else to learn from. Wikipedia is the same idea, only I’d say it’s even more important because it’s Wikipedia. Go for it, ladies. Be bold.

Spacefem (talk) 19:52, 10 February 2011 (UTC)

24 thoughts on “I’m a woman, and I’ve edited Wikipedia

  1. vaurora

    At my first Grace Hopper conference for women in computing, I went to a panel about founding successful startups. I listened to one successful executive describe her daily schedule, which started at 5am and consisted of nothing but alternating between working and taking care of her children until she went to sleep again at midnight. Later, when asked for her advice to other women who wanted to found a startup, she said, “Just do it!” I thought, “Just???” Sure, if you need fewer than 5 hours a sleep a night to function… just do it!

    I’m not particularly fond of the “Just do it!” realm of advice to women in male-dominated fields. There’s some reason why women aren’t just doing it, usually multiple extremely good reasons (such as needing more than 5 hours of sleep a night and being unable to get your high-powered executive husband to do his share of the child-rearing). If you address specific factors and give concrete advice on how to overcome them, I feel comfortable with a concluding “Just do it!” But otherwise, you’re perpetuating the idea that the fault lies in the women themselves – some insufficiency of personal moral capacity or laziness or weakness.

    I know why I don’t participate in Wikipedia. My personal biography has been deleted a minimum of 5 times – which is not the problem. The problem is that I started supporting deletion of it the second time around because of the incredibly sexist and nasty things that male editors always added to my page within a few days of its creation (when they aren’t making incredibly sexist and nasty comments on the Talk page in favor of its deletion).

    Women aren’t participating in Wikipedia for extremely good and valid reasons, having everything to do with the men who are participating in Wikipedia driving them out. Let’s not perpetuate the idea that women themselves are somehow responsible for their own exclusion.

    1. spacefem

      I realize “just do it” isn’t a great answer. When women opt out of something, from little things like Wikipedia to big things like “the sciences”, it’s important to keep asking questions about why, keep investigating what we can do about it, keep looking forward.

      But I couldn’t think of any great advice to give the Wikimedia foundation about how to magically make their community more tolerant. It is what it is. It’s feeding on itself and perpetuating itself, like patriarchies do. What can I do, besides just keep editing?

  2. deborah

    I was an extremely serious Wikipedia editor for a time — and of female-dominated topics, at that — and I ended up stopping because the culture of Wikipedia, like the culture of so many male techie hobbies, was overwhelmingly biased towards becoming oobsessive. I became, for a time, wikiholic, and dangerously so. Moreover, I felt pressured by the Wikipedia editing community to become more rather than less of an intensive editor. There were so many tools in place to enable people to measure the number of there edits against other Wikipedia editors. In discussions, the number of hours logged per day by each editor were being taken into account quite formally by the other participants in the discussions and arguments.

    Participating in a community that valued that level of volume, and particularly that valued quantity over quality (e.g. large number of Wikipedia edits over subject expertise) starting hurting my job and my family. So I stopped, cold turkey, and will never go back.

  3. Restructure!

    Great post! The criticisms in the comments are good too.

    I used to edit Wikipedia obsessively a very long time ago, back when I couldn’t stand misspelled words. I edited Wikipedia as an excuse to procrastinate when I was an undergraduate. I’m sure my grades would have been higher if I didn’t edit Wikipedia so much.

    Something happened that made me feel that the culture of Wikipedia editors was against change and was all about upholding the status quo. Maybe that’s fair, because Wikipedia is about regurgitating common knowledge, not about “original research”. Anyway, I felt that I couldn’t express non-mainstream ideas on Wikipedia, so that was one of the main reasons why I started blogging instead.

    Perhaps the whole concept of preserving and perpetuating commonly-accepted knowledge is a historical continuation of elevating the writings of white men over those outside the mainstream. Hence, it would attract people who find nothing wrong with the white, male (English, American) bias over commonly-accepted knowledge.

    On the other hand, I learned a lot about obscure/fringe topics through Wikipedia. It’s complicated.

  4. robin

    I’m a queer woman and a major feminist sf fan — and I first read about the problems on Wikipedia in the context of feminist science fiction (when women who were tired of battling the sexism started Wikichix).

    One of the absolutely best resources for feminist science fiction on the internet is Laura Quilter’s feminist sf (which she started while a law student), before wikis (it’s now a wiki).

    Apparently there were major debates over whether “feminist science fiction” needed its own entry when there was wow, one whole entry on women and sf (but every Playboy bunny had her own entry) — this was some years ago, so my memory is a bit fuzzy.

    I’m sure it’s possible that some women participate in wikipedia with no problems–especially if they don’t take on any radical issues regarding race, sexuality, class, gender, etc.

    There was a large body of published work by women on feminist science fiction, yet the boys thought it wasn’t “notable” or important or whatever to have its own entry.

    People do tend to do things their friends do, but they also tend to learn from their friends, and in my area of the internet there are enough women who have horror stories about wikipedia to make me decide never to work on it.

    Not until they learn that “human” does not equal “straight white cis middle class able-bodied male.” I’ll support the other wikis.

  5. robin

    A link!

    http://wikichix.org/wiki/WikiChix

    I didn’t read the mainstream media article, but now I should check it out–I wonder if it actually cites any of the criticism by women of wikipedia which has been out there for years.

    Probably not, but I can always hope.

  6. sd

    More women don’t edit wikipedia because we’re too busy, and the majority male community can be hostile. I don’t get why people are even wondering, it’s so obvious. I agree with the commenter above that blaming the women (as usual) is unproductive.

  7. mim

    How did they determine the 13%? I can’t read the NYT article because I don’t have an account, but if they did by counting female nicknames, one reason for the low percentage of female contributors could be that women are more likely to hide their gender with gender-neutral nicknames in order to be taken seriously or not being harassed etc. I’m not saying that wikipedia isn’t a male-dominated project, but maybe the percentage is not accurate?

    As a female contributor myself I have to agree with the previous commenters. I don’t contribute more often because it feels like I need to defend my contributions too much and non-mainstream ideas often get rejected for “relevance” reasons.

  8. The EGE

    I edit religiously. Not quite addicting, but for me it’s a reward for getting my homework done. It’s very easy to get caught up in edit warring and edit count dick-sizing contests and forget what the real point is: to assemble as much human knowledge as possible. It’s why I mainly stick to the backwaters of the project – obscure train stations, copy-editing and coding, stuff like that. I’ve added geographic coordinates for over 60% of Connecticut articles missing them – over 200 articles so far, with over 300 sets of coordinates – and that’s my pride and joy. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment, knowing that maybe someday someone will derive some benefit from my work.

    I encourage you to keep contributing. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. And if you ever need help (coding, referencing, anything), don’t hesitate to give me a ring.

  9. jen

    So after reading this article I was inspired to go look at the Wikipedia article on rape culture. I found the article to be rather short, with no mention of recent controversies such as Roman Polanski or Dickwolves or Michael Moore’s dismissal of rape allegations against Julian Assange, and the talk page contains a comment saying that rape culture is “contradictory” and that the article is “misandric”. I didn’t find anything in that short article that was either contradictory or misandric. So I started a conversation with myself about whether I should go in and improve that article, with the knowledge that I would have to fight against people who know nothing about the topic and are openly hostile to the idea that rape culture even exists, when this would take up time and energy I could productively use on other things, and…

    well, I’m leaning towards no. Because of the concept “rape culture” is fundamentally a challenge and critique the mainstream point of view (otherwise known as the “neutral” point of view, although I personally don’t believe a “neutral” point of view exists, there are only majority views and minority views). So I find myself thinking that it’s impossible even to talk about rape culture on a platform such as Wikipedia which elevates the most mainstream position and dismisses all others.

    I might still do it, I just worry that it could end up being a colossal, and frustrating, waste of time.

    1. Restructure!

      This is a good example of the type of Wikipedia article that could lead to edit wars and suppression of minority views. I hope somebody (not necessarily you) edits in the examples of Roman Polanski, Dickwolves, and Michael Moore’s dismissal of rape allegations against Julian Assange, and then I can remember what it is exactly that made me give up editing Wikipedia.

      On the other hand, if those edits stay, then we all benefit as well.

    2. Restructure!

      Off the top of my head, I can think of reasons why including criticisms of Roman Polanski, Dickwolves, and Michael Moore’s dismissal of rape allegations against Julian Assange in the rape culture article might be against Wikipedia’s norms.

      Firstly, in most cases, blog posts are not considered valid references, so you can’t really include criticisms coming from most of the feminist blogosphere. Feministing is “notable” enough to have its own Wikipedia article, but Tiger Beatdown and Sady Doyle are not. So even though Tiger Beatdown/Sady Doyle (and other women) did so much work on #mooreandme, their criticisms are probably not “notable” enough. Any possible notability would derive from famous established people, like Rachel Maddow’s acknowledgment of #mooreandme‘s existence on Twitter (but not on air).

      Dickwolves is the same thing. Most of the controversy comes from the feminist and survivor blogosphere, and blog posts are not valid references, most blogs are not notable enough, so it would fail the notability test.

      If I recall correctly, there were some criticisms of Roman Polanski on some blog post connected to a mainstream news outlet, but I’m not sure. That might count for notability, but on the other hand, if article was not influential enough or there is no proof of its influence, then the criticism might not count as notable enough to include in a Wikipedia article.

      It’s been a long time since I was an active Wikipedia editor, but that is my understanding of the norms.

      (See Also: Wikipedia:Notability – General notability guideline)

      1. jen

        Ah thanks for that, you’ve pretty much talked me out of it :-) Call me a crazy radical feminist, but imo those that have the most power in society are also the ones that have the most access to the kind of platforms that would meet Wikipedia’s notability guidelines as “reliable sources” – newspapers etc. I mean, for example, that the majority of news reporters are men, and this might have something to do with the fact that articles about feminism are more likely to be found in blogs than in newspapers – and it’s made clear on the page you linked to that Wikipedia doesn’t consider blogs to be as good as newspapers, even if the blog has a high readership. That kind of “neutrality” only reflects and amplifies the inequalities that already exist in society.

        1. Restructure!

          Yeah, given that Wikipedia is not for original research, I doubt that diverse contributors would really lead to diverse opinions, since its purpose is to summarize information coming from traditional media.

          (On the other hand, some people who are not white, not male, etc. and non-mainstream do get published in traditional media, so there is some opportunity to boost those signals.)

        2. robin

          RE: the idea that newspapers are reliable sources and blogs are not!

          And yet there are many blogs (often by academics) analyzing the unreliability of how the mainstream media operates–i.e. the famous series of articles in the early 1990s about how if a woman didn’t get married by a certain age, she’d be more likely to be shot by a terrorist–so it’s reported newspapers but completely wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong

          http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/terrorist.asp

          Expecting wikipedia to actually work on learning how to critically evaluate what is reported and to understand the institutionalized biasses that exist in the mainstream media is apparently too hard!

  10. Restructure!

    We should really question the 13% number now. According to Joseph Reagle, very few Wikipedia editors gender declare. For English Wikipedia, only 2.01% of Wikipedia editors declared their gender, so it would be ridiculous to extrapolate the ratio of women from low report rates like that.

    After all, aren’t we taught that we should use neutral gender names and hide our gender online to avoid harassment and bias?

  11. Latoya Peterson

    Uh, clearly it is time to delurk.

    Hello geek feminists! I love your site, and have been following it ever since Restructure pointed to it in one of her posts. I really enjoy the conversations and community here.

    However, this post in particular has a few things at play. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m currently consulting for Wikipedia about their user experience – they asked me last summer to come into the community as a non editor and talk about what I felt. So while I appreciate the Spacefems encouragement, I have to agree with vaurora –

    There’s some reason why women aren’t just doing it, usually multiple extremely good reasons (such as needing more than 5 hours of sleep a night and being unable to get your high-powered executive husband to do his share of the child-rearing). If you address specific factors and give concrete advice on how to overcome them, I feel comfortable with a concluding “Just do it!” But otherwise, you’re perpetuating the idea that the fault lies in the women themselves – some insufficiency of personal moral capacity or laziness or weakness.

    I run a web site, and while I’m a bit better at markup language than the average person, I am still leagues and leagues away from feeling comfortable with even basic CSS modifications. (My website recently crashed and I had a case of dry heaves trying to figure to manually add a header, put space in a header, and put in advertising under that.) So for me, despite the fact that I am familiar with the commands and I understood the need to play with the editing interface, I still don’t want to spend very much time there, even as I spend hours in the web 2.0 friendly landscape of my own blog.

    @deborah –

    and I ended up stopping because the culture of Wikipedia, like the culture of so many male techie hobbies, was overwhelmingly biased towards becoming oobsessive. I became, for a time, wikiholic, and dangerously so.

    They are already warning me of the fact that you get addicted to wikipedia – but I think the issue for a lot of us non-editors is that we have other things to get obsessed over. Wiki is a very specific type of forum, with very specific rules – so for me, its always been easier to create my own rules in another space, which is something else to contend with.

    @Restructure –

    Something happened that made me feel that the culture of Wikipedia editors was against change and was all about upholding the status quo. Maybe that’s fair, because Wikipedia is about regurgitating common knowledge, not about “original research”. Anyway, I felt that I couldn’t express non-mainstream ideas on Wikipedia, so that was one of the main reasons why I started blogging instead.

    Agreed. It’s another tricky thing I struggle with – Wikipedians who create entries tend to be passionate about the subject; but community norms work to discourage experts from contributing in topics of their own expertise unless a third party is willing to acknowledge them as a source. This is difficult when you are currently outside of the status quo.

    There is also a status quo culture – just checking the African American user category on Wiki (which again, is a highly self-selected group) shows many folks having battles over creating black identified pages (i.e. black physicists) – a culture that discourages good information because it may be considered controversial or presents a direct challenge to existing hegemony.

    Also agreed on questioning the 12% figure – too much assumption inherent in creating that number. It would be the same if I assumed every person that put a user box denoting they were African American on the page were the only African Americans/racial minorities on Wikipedia.

    I must also say I am amused at the NYT and NPR picking this up – while it is definitely a noteworthy stat, I believe off the top of my head that most newsrooms struggle with the same issue – particularly on op-ed pages. And that’s super interesting because while Wiki is generally monitored by its community and there is no compensation involved for the participants, most of the news outlets offer compensation, have most decisions on inclusion fall to one or two people, and still struggle with the same issue.

    Anyway, looking forward to reading/watching as this conversation develops.

    1. Shane Landrum

      I’ll elaborate on Knitting Clio’s comment:

      WikiProject Women’s History (WP:WMNHIST) “seeks to expand Wikipedia coverage on historical women and relevant events/groups/issues throughout history. Currently, many entries about individual women on Wikipedia are relatively less complete than entries about men. This is a coverage gap and also a contributing factor in women’s relative lack of participation as editors. Creating this project will make it easier to document the gaps in coverage (existing entries and entries that should be created) and to fill them.”

      I started WP:WMNHIST because it needed to exist and no one else was doing it. In just over a week (see this roundup post), we’ve already marked over 2500 entries related to historical women– mostly but not solely biographical. We’d love to have more people involved, and we’re happy to mentor people into contributing. If you have further questions, please get in touch via my talk page.

  12. The EGE

    Moore, Assange, Polanski, and Penny Arcade are all notable; I know I read a lot about Polanski in mainstream media and I believe I saw criticism of Moore as well. Connecticut geocoordinates can wait a few days; this is a whole lot more important. Time to do some work…

  13. Gwytherinn

    Somewhat late response here – I admit it, when I first read the post, I didn’t “get it.” I just kind of figured we have more important things to do than edit a website which isn’t really taken all that “seriously” (like not okay to cite for research papers) despite the fact that it’s where everyone goes for information now. But it made me curious, and I remember a few years back when I looked up Coco Fusco, only to see that someone suggested deletion on the discussion page for her lack of “relevance” and *hating* the idea that someone could sit there and deem that when it was so untrue. So I decided to poke around, and for (masochistic) “fun” looked at the talk page of James Tiptree and rape culture.

    Looking at the talk pages and the discussions of those who are editing key concepts about feminism kind of set my blood boiling. I hate the idea that there is the potential for such bias (objective in their minds, I’m sure) on a site that is the 4th most visited on the web and one of the primary places people get information. I will try to get involved to some extent.

    I really enjoyed this post and the ensuing comment thread. It gave me a lot to think about! I clicked through from another blog I read and I’ll definitely be back.

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