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.

By Nicole Nash

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...