Curator, art consultant, and archivist Sarah Stierch is on a mission to get more women involved in Wikipedia. In our email interview with Sarah, we asked about her work and her experience as a Wikimedia Community Fellow.TechRepublic: Why do you think so few women post to Wikipedia? Sarah Stierch: The ongoing burning question! There are a number of reasons why women might not edit Wikipedia. Of course, every woman who has interest or disinterest in participating has different reasons. I do believe that it comes down to a variety of reasons - often various reasons coming together. Reasons that have been expressed to me by women who do not edit but perhaps have interest in editing Wikipedia have been that they don't have the free time that it entails, that the interface is not user-friendly or appealing enough to make them want to participate, perhaps they don't feel confident enough to just "dive in" to the experience - many people know that it can be a tough landscape to be in, making it not very welcoming at times. And this also involves the fact that Wikipedia can be very argument/conflict based depending on the subject matter or where you find yourself falling into the community of Wikipedia. Most women aren't interested in that type of environment, we are interested in a more support based landscape. Women are also more socially active online, and Wikipedia doesn't always offer a welcoming tone or social support system that one might find elsewhere.
This primarily focuses on English Wikipedia. Of course, in other languages it can range from the similar reasons above to gendered cultural differences in women's roles and gendered language.TechRepublic: Where else do you see this phenomenon? Sarah Stierch: It's no secret that the open source and computer sciences landscape struggles to encourage women's participation. Lack of support in women's early educational and social experiences with computer tech is often blamed for that - but, it's also no secret that the tech world can be immature or sexist in its execution and often fails to make women feel comfortable and welcome. Take the recent Dell conference in Europe, for example.
I do believe that the power of invitation and encouraging women to participate in online projects like Wikipedia is a key component of improving their participation in Wikipedia, which perhaps overlaps with the struggles that computer science has to bring more women into the folds. However, Wikipedia also does have lapses into sexism and unwelcomeness that aren't surprising if you are involved in the tech world.TechRepublic: Why is it important for women to become more active on Wikipedia? Sarah Stierch: Our mission at Wikipedia focuses around the concept of providing every human free access to the sum of all the world's knowledge. If women make up half of the world's population, and approximately 90% of the people writing the sum of the world's knowledge on Wikipedia are men, how are we able to truly achieve our mission? The same rings true not just for women.
While women are interested in subjects ranging from women's history to music to religion to fashion to the sciences, with men writing the sum of the world's knowledge, certain subjects might be covered more than [a]subject that may be of interest to a woman or women as a whole. This is also a challenge - women not writing [on] Wikipedia means that certain subjects may not be receiving the attention they deserve.TechRepublic: What methods are you using to encourage women to participate? Sarah Stierch: One of the first projects that we have developed is the Teahouse. It's a unique on-Wikipedia space that not only looks different than Wikipedia, but, it provides a social support structure unique to itself and generally unseen in Wikipedia. This project focuses on a many-to-many support system for new editors, when Wikipedia often relies on a one-to-one system or a self-help system (utilizing clunky Wikipedia help guides, for example). We have a group of friendly volunteer "hosts" who greet new editors, invite them to come by the Teahouse for help, assist them in a non-threatening welcoming environment, and treat them with the respect that they deserve as contributors to the world's largest free encyclopedia. We do believe that this environment provides a welcome and friendly space for women to participate, specifically the social-learning experience that women often desire.
We are in the process of strategizing further projects. I'd like to see the development of an online women's action space, to find ways that women can support one another in their Wikipedia contributions. We also have developed a series of offline outreach events internationally which continue to be popular. I'd like to explore ways in which we can retain women through those events. Many who attend them often don't edit after the event, so, there are a lot of challenges in breaking this egg!
Female Geekend readers, have you contributed to Wikipedia? If not, what are the primary reasons? All Geekend readers, we'd love to hear your thoughts about the gender gap on Wikipedia.
Nicole Bremer Nash is Director of Content and Social Media for HuTerra, where she uses SEO and social media to promote charitable organizations in their community-building and fundraising efforts. She enjoys volunteering, arts and crafts, and conducting science experiments at home. Nicole has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Transylvania University, and has experience in copywriting for education, print, business, and the web. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter via @HuTerra.