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Wikipedia: We need more women

Wikipedia has a problem: not enough contributors are women. The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs the 10-year-old online encyclopedia, recently collaborated in a study that found that the overwhelming majority of contributors are men – 87 percent to be precise.

Sue Gardner, executive director or the foundation, isn’t only concerned that the numbers are not reflective of society as a whole; she fears that the male bias may be showing show up in the editorial content.

“Eighty-seven percent of Wikipedia editors are male, and so topics that would associate or correlate with being female are certainly less well covered than topics that correlate with being interesting to men,” said Gardner during a recent panel discussion that was broadcast by NPR.

An article in The New York Times suggests how this male dominance might manifest itself: “A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like toy soldiers or baseball cards.”

It goes on to compare the coverage of two HBO productions: Sex and the City and The Sopranos. While the former series enjoyed high ratings – from a mostly female audience – its entry in Wikipedia pales in comparison to the almost fanatically exhaustive piece on The Sopranos, a show with a more male-oriented viewership.

(if you find the above examples to be unrepresentative or trivial, then it just illustrates how difficult it is to make valid gender comparisons in such a sensitive area!)

Ironically, Wikipedia’s own history may have something to do with the statistical imbalance. The young, nerdy, and predominantly male image of many of the early Web 2.0 developers may have discouraged the participation of women. And a Wikipedia culture that strongly resists outside interference and the imposition of rules – even those favoring diversity – has contributed to maintaining the status quo.

However, not everyone thinks that Wikipedia’s situation is unusual. The New York-based OpEd Project monitors contributors to “public thought-leadership forums” and says that a participation ratio of 85:15 in favor of men is common, citing both the U.S. Congress and the Op-Ed pages of The Times as examples.

For now, Ms. Gardner says she favors subtle persuasion and outreach when it comes to adding female contributors, rather than setting recruiting goals or quotas. Meanwhile, if you are a woman – or a man – and feel you have something to contribute, here’s how you get started.

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