Wikipedia, the collaborative encyclopedia that's edited by you (if you're a dude), me (if I were a dude), and all the dudes you know, launched in 2001 and quickly became the place to find quick info on pretty much any topic under the sun. Remember writing research papers before Wikipedia? Man, we were all such chumps with our "books."
Despite being one of the most heavily visited sites on the web, women comprise just 9 percent* of all Wikipedia editors. Why is that? Oh, you know, the usual — gender bias in general, extreme gender bias in tech, and the hostile culture that can create for women.
Sarah Stierch (pictured below), a long-time Wikipedia editor and research fellow with the Wikimedia Foundation, is pushing for more female participation on the site. She believes the first step in solving the problem is understanding it.
"The average Wikipedia editor is a well-educated white male. Well-educated white males have been writing history and the story of the world since ancient times," says Sarah Stierch, a long-time Wikipedia editor and research fellow with the Wikimedia Foundation.
The fact that there are fewer women in tech and higher education is the first problem, says Stierch. However, it doesn't end there.
In the recent study "Free Culture and the Gender Gap," Joseph Reagle, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, argues that women's decisions not to participate in Wikipedia may be less of a choice than it initially seems.
"The ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice," Reagle told the Daily Dot. "That is, 'if there are no women in our project, it must simply be their choice.' Women may have made a choice, but it was not based on whether they find the project interesting or have a contribution to make, but by the 'brogrammer' locker-room type of environment."
Amen! And because they'd rather not deal with this, many female contributors choose to hide their sex. There's nothing wrong with that, as history has proven that sometimes the best way for a women to be taken seriously is to pretend to be a man. However, some women like Stierch want something else.
"Being 'out' has been more empowering than ever trying to hide"
Stierch admitted that the practice of remaining gender-anonymous on Wikipedia is fairly common, though she insists it's a minority of female users. She argues that the best tactic for creating a more inclusive Wikipedia community is for more women to "come out" as women on the site.
The Wikimedia Foundation says it's committed to working on the Wikipedia gender gap, as it realizes it's best for the site as a whole. Lack of diversity hurts Wikipedia and it shows on the site, in its content and design. A culture that's centered around people who are all very similar lacks depth, introspection, and ultimately, growth.
As someone who uses Wikipedia on the regular to look up everything from the ownership rights of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (it's complicated!) to the list of unusual deaths (SUCH A GOOD PAGE), I'm excited they're acknowledging that it's time to change. Let's hope it happens.
*I've seen conflicting reports between 9 and 13 percent, so I went with the one that appeared the most accurate. UPDATE: Sarah Stierch confirms that's actually just 9 percent. The story was edited to reflect that change.
Main image by Jim Cooke. Stierch image via fabola /Flickr.