IT Employment

Wikipedia's dearth of women contributors: An interview with Sarah Stierch

Approximately 90% of the posts on Wikipedia are written by men. Sarah Stierch offers possible reasons for the gender gap and discusses Wikimedia's efforts to get more women to contribute.

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?

Photo credit: Matthew Roth

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!

TechRepublic: Are there any fields in which it is particularly important for women to participate on Wikipedia? Sarah Stierch: Any and all! You can see my previous answer for some input on that. It might entertain you to know that the majority of people who contribute to articles about child care and women's health are often men. Go figure! TechRepublic: What is the most fun part of serving as a Community Fellow for the Wikimedia Foundation? Sarah Stierch: I love working with the community to develop this project. I get to contribute to a project, Wikipedia, that I have been contributing to for many years in a way I never thought I'd get to contribute. It's really empowering, and hopefully others will feel empowered through the work myself and others are doing. The people I work with are inspiring and encouraging, which means so much when trying to work on such a challenging and at times emotional project such as this. I have also had the pleasure of meeting inspiring people around the world interested in Wikipedia, free knowledge, and the gender gap. TechRepublic: What current project are you most excited about? Sarah Stierch: I'm pretty excited to see where we can take the Teahouse in its next phase. It's been a success at retaining editors so I'd like to see it be utilize[d] in a broader sense to engage more editors. I'm also super excited about developing a new series of calls for action for women to participate. TechRepublic: You are currently in the process of moving. What new adventures await you on the other side of the country? Sarah Stierch: I just arrived in the Bay Area. My family lives out here, and many of my friends, so it's just lovely to be out here with them. I'm looking forward to meeting more people involved in the cultural world of San Francisco and the Bay, and enjoying the fine wine and food that wine country entails, too! Ha! TechRepublic: What is the best way to incentivize women to participate on Wikipedia? Sarah Stierch: I believe invitation and a call for action will be key components in encouraging women to participate. Women are also more active in activities involving non-profits, and when women can learn more about the importance that their contributions to Wikipedia are, and the impact those contributions have internationally, women will see that their contributions are invaluable and so important to making Wikipedia what it is - the world's most inclusive and informative online resource. TechRepublic: What will happen if more women don't participate? Sarah Stierch: History and culture will continue to be dictated by men. TechRepublic: Anything else you would like to say about it? Sarah Stierch: Be bold, hit that edit button, and contribute to the free knowledge movement! Update on Nov. 1, 2012: Sarah Stierch informed me about a new project she started with women in the Wikipedia community called the WikiWomen's Collaborative. She writes: "The project aims at bringing women into editing Wikipedia, and providing a space for women who already do. This space includes a blog, Twitter and Facebook."

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.

About

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 conduct...

13 comments
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People who are complaining about things like "male privilege" and "white privilege" aren't doing much more but blaming other people for their own darned shortcomings. Yes, I'm white and male. I'm also short, fat, hearing impaired, have a speech impediment and walk with a severe limp because of a hip problem I was born with. Women, and people of color, do me a favor, before you whine and complain to me about being put upon because of your gender and your skin color, take a look at the statistics for short people, overweight people, hearing impaired, speech impaired people, physically impaired people, oh and people who simply aren't pretty - then we'll get together over a beer and nuts and talk about your whining. In the mean time,I have better things to do than think about excuses for failure.

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I meant "male" not mail. (by the way, my "female" wife would undoubtedly have spelled that word correctly).

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Call me stupid, but exactly which portion of "mail privilege" lets me type on a keyboard and contribute to Wikipedia and prevents a woman? I'm an IT consultant, a profession which doesn't see many women, why? I don't know. I do know this, my wife cannot seem to manage a remote control properly, but when I'm around her I don't even bother attempting math in any form, I just look at her and she spits out what I take for granted is the correct answer. My wife seems to have no interest in geeky gadgety things, why? Don't know, don't care, it isn't my purpose in life to tell her what to be interested in - That would a male domineering thing wouldn't it?

liju philip
liju philip

We must seek out where the words of wisdom lies and share it to others...it should be the purpose of wikipeadian's... it should not have anything to do with gender matter's .! the dearth of women contributors can be a struggle without an opponent to oppose what women hate's to express.. if they don't like to contribute.. what can we do??

aprilking
aprilking

Have you asked the Women of SWE (Society of Women Engineers) to help out? Here are a bunch of Tech savey women that might have what you are looking for.

kaur
kaur

The Teahouse page really doesn't explain how to get started as an editor. If that's your goal to attract new editors, particularly women, that page needs a new design to reflect that goal.

iouzero
iouzero

It absolutely baffles me why, with no barrier of any kind so far as I tell, anyone would take it in his head that the dearth of women in any particular field, including the one in question, must be, has to be, unarguably is, due to some mysterious brand of sexism unheard of until this practical moment. It appears to me that all anyone of whichever sex who wants to contribute to Wikipedia has to do is to do so. Given that self-evident fact, the answer why females are unrepresented can hardly be other than they don't choose to do so. It is also self-evident that this choice is made within the female head, and I'd suggest that root of this 'problem', if such it actually is, lays in that area. It's been my experience, which I believe to be a common enough set, that a large part of the reason that women's inputs are ignored by their male collegues is simply the female penchant for believing that convincing herself should be sufficient for convincing all, which is seldom the case. Any person, male or female, with head well screwed on who offers a legitimate point of view is unlikely to be elbowed aside arbitrarily. Maybe in the good days of bra burning, but, for Pete's sake, that was half a century ago. Blaming men for every insufficency females carry about with themselves is a greater burden to themselves than anything men do, especially given the ubiquitous tendency the ordinary male has to heap assistance upon these selfsame females, simply because they are female, without regard to merit. Sadly, women see this natural protectiveness of men toward women as their birthright, again, simply because they are female.

tejastoday
tejastoday

Does any woman recognize nerd as a man? In the first question she tells that woman don't have enough time. How is it possible. They spend at least 5 hours a day on cellphone and gossip and that sort of things. Most of Wikipedia editors are classified as nerds and not their favourite jocks. Bringing gender in this matter is really annoying.

cathi_w
cathi_w

Men have just been culturally conditioned to ignore, pass by, like women are invisible or something rather than appreciating the diversity of perspectives. I do appreciate the outreach and believe that is an effort in the right direction. Rather like women making 77 cents to the male dollar and men think that is perfectly ok, since it is still so prevalent. Like heart studies where all of the participants are male and then (male) doctors don't know why women have completely different cardiac symptomology. One guy in three so far have completely denied their own privilege. One stating it is about status, meaning that men have to make a spectacle of themselves by being obnoxious. Completely obliviously noting that even in traditionally women dominated subject areas, men STILL must make an ass of themselves. The next completely unwilling to acknowledge his own privilege and unawareness, calling the whole thing 'silly'. His loss. One guy out of three get's it. Better odds than usual and one would hope that a civilized society would value ALL of it's members rather than just the ones who can beat, rape and kill.

jevans4949
jevans4949

I'm just a (male) reader of Wikipedia, not a contributor. Personally, it has never occurred to me until now to wonder whether the writer of any particular article is a man or a woman. It probably won't bother me from now on either. Male-versus-male competition is pretty much standard in mammalian species. Females make their importance felt with less overt aggression. In human societies where knowledge is valued, demonstrating (some) knowledge enhances a man's status. It's probably less harmful to society than men displaying their physical prowess. Interestingly, it's been noted recently that in cooking and in fashion design, both traditionally "women's skills", some of the most influential voices are men's.

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Let's not be silly here. When a perceived class of people start crying about "Privilege", it's easy to figure out where they're coming from. Look, ladies, I for one will listen to anyone with a semi-decent idea, gender doesn't enter into it. I most certainly do not attempt to discern the gender of the writer before reading anything. The fact is, I really don't even look at the name of the writer when I read - perhaps I should so I can give appreciation for the good works that they do.

seanferd
seanferd

Everywhere. Most men don't know how to check their privilege, and most women can't be bothered to put up with it (assuming that is even an option). A lot of men deny their privilege and/or flat out refuse to change their behavior. As a guy, [i]I[/i] can't put up with their dreck half the time.

StirlingLass
StirlingLass

Wow, your comment is SOOO sexist. As a woman, and the primary breadwinner of my household, I work 70 plus hours per week, then manage my household, look after the needs of my child and husband. There is no time for social media for me. I do not talk on my cellphone except required business phone calls. None of my female colleagues and friends behave in the antiquated social manner you describe. We are all strong, intelligent professionals. Unfortunately we all juggle so many responsibilities there is no time for a leisure activity, such as editing wikipedia. And working in the tech industry, I can tell you, even here in California, it is still sexist, still a "boys" club. There is a definitive glass ceiling and female opinions are run over or discounted by dominant males on the team.

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